Anybody Know What Normal Is?


By R. L. Keller



“That was clever.”


Lee threw a disgusted look at the speaker for the snide remark.  “You weren’t supposed to see that,” he muttered.


“A good Exec sees all, hears all, and knows all,” came the firm retort from Lee’s long-time friend.  But neither man’s frown lasted long and they both ended up chuckling.  Lee started mopping up the coffee stains from the navigation chart he was working with.  It could have been a lot worse.  The lightweight cast on his left wrist, more firm plastic splint than anything, was making him a bit clumsy and he’d jostled his coffee mug.  Thankfully he hadn’t knocked over the mugful of dark, powerful brew, only splashed out a few drops.


“When was the last time you were in your bunk?” Chip returned to his firm, ‘XO in Charge’ voice.


Lee glared at him.  “I just got up an hour ago,” he growled.


The blond knew him far too well to be affected by Lee’s apparent bad humor.  “Allow me to rephrase the question.  When was the last time you actually slept in your bunk?”


The chart as clean as he was going to get it Lee momentarily closed his eyes, and a slightly sheepish expression replaced the frown as he sent a sideways look at Chip.  “Been awhile,” he admitted.


Seaview, the giant submarine Lee Crane captained for the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, was recovering from a minor altercation with an overly friendly pod of gray whales.  Dive planes had been knocked off-line long enough to bounce Seaview against a seamount before trim could be re-established, and anything not firmly secured had been flung sideways.  That included most of the crew.  Thankfully, injuries were minimal but widespread.  Dr. Will Jamison and his two corpsmen rapidly went through their stores of ace bandages and strapping tape, dealing with all the strained and sprained wrists and ankles, and had to come up with a few not quite orthodox alternatives – like cutting up several sheets into strips, and holding them in place with duct tape to strengthen weakened and injured joints.


Other damage to the boat had been more of the annoying kind, as opposed to serious.  Circuit breakers had been tripped all over the boat.  Most just needed resetting, but enough were fried and had to be replaced that the systems they controlled caused more than a few anxious moments until full power was restored.  As usual, Chip co-coordinated everything from the Control Room, his quiet calm permeating every command or acknowledgement.  Lee was everywhere else – at least it always seemed so to his crew.  He had an uncanny knack for showing up just when an extra hand was needed or a decision made.  His tight-knit crew was extremely well trained, but they were also very used to finding their Skipper wandering around, offering a tool here or a suggestion there.


It had taken several hours after the accident for Doc’s sharp eyes to note anything amiss with his workaholic young captain’s movements, and slow him down long enough to put the soft cast on a badly sprained wrist.  As Lee wasn’t showing signs of any other injuries Will wasn’t able to do much more than get him to also swallow a couple ibuprofen before Lee was once again off tending to his boat’s needs.  Doc did make a point of asking Cookie to personally track Lee down, as often as he thought he could get away with it, and keep him supplied with sandwiches and cookies.  They were two items both men could be fairly sure Lee would take the time to quickly eat.  But both also knew that, left to his own devices, Lee would simply ignore the fact that mealtimes had come and gone without him once giving them a thought as long as his boat was in any danger, and survive on coffee alone.


Sleep was an entirely different matter.  As long as Seaview wasn’t running 100% there was little hope of anyone getting the conscientious (Chip had been heard to call it stubborn and pigheaded) captain to slow down, short of using one of Doc’s cocked and loaded syringes.  Chip considered it a minor miracle that he’d actually convinced Lee to head for his cabin about 0230 that morning, once all systems were again up and running smoothly – even if a couple of them were only jury-rigged.  Now, at just after 0700, he was realizing the error of his assumption that Lee’s head hitting a pillow would be enough to make him sleep.  Shaking his head at his old friend, he wandered down to the radio shack.


Lee watched Chip walk away, somewhat surprised that he had so easily dropped the discussion.  Lee wasn’t a stupid man.  He was perfectly aware that he needed more rest.  He was just glad that Chip wasn’t aware that Lee’s lack of sufficient sleep went beyond just the last couple of nights, and gave himself a mental shake to wipe the scene that little revelation would cause out of his mind.  He knew just how hard he could push himself, and knew that even if limits were reached he had always been able to find that ‘something extra’ to get him through whatever was happening.  Admiral Nelson was due to arrive shortly in FS1 with several replacement parts necessary to permanently fix the systems that had been jury-rigged.  Once all repairs were completed and his boat and crew were once again as safe as he could make them, there would be time for Lee to catch up on sleep.  I’ll deal with the rest of it eventually, he assured himself.  He glanced at Chip, seeming to be in conversation with Sparks, and smiled.  While Lee would occasionally get frustrated with his XO’s ‘just looking after my Captain’ routine, he knew that what was really behind it was the strong bonds of friendship that the two men had shared since their early days at Annapolis.


But if Chip called Lee stubborn, the quality was present two-fold in the blond.  Deciding to avoid what would no doubt lead to all-out warfare with his occasionally temperamental CO, he chose to make the call he wanted to make from the relative privacy of the radio shack instead of doing it directly in front of Lee.  Lee hadn’t paid him a whole lot of attention, and Chip hoped that he was assuming his supremely efficient XO was checking on something.  Lee did raise an eyebrow as Chip once again walked up to the chart table, but the blond gave him an enigmatic little smile and picked up the duty roster.


It was several minutes later when footsteps were heard casually descending the spiral stairs from Officers’ Country.  Chip took one quick glance and decided he needed to be elsewhere.


Lee also took one glance, and stopped his Exec’s retreat with a deliberate, “Mr. Morton.”


Chip turned instantly and plastered his patented ‘XO on Duty’ expression on his face.  “Yes, sir?”


Lee just glared at him, until a soft chuckle from behind Lee undid both younger men.  “Never mind,” Lee acquiesced to the inevitable, and turned to face Seaview’s softly smiling CMO.  Footsteps could be heard rapidly headed the other direction.  “What brings you forward?” Lee asked out loud, but muttered still loud enough that Doc could hear him, “as if I didn’t know.”


“Not sure what you mean,” Will lied easily.  “I knew that we were still on the surface and thought that I’d come check out the view.  Gets a little boring just looking at bulkheads all the time, you know.”  Lee crossed his arms, frowning.  “Not to mention the fact that the Admiral is due in shortly, and he’s bringing back a fair amount of supplies for me.”


“Your corpsmen usually take care of that,” Lee observed dryly.


“Both of whom are finally getting some sleep now that things are relatively back to normal.”


Lee gave his CMO – and friend, although you had to see past the almost constant needling each gave the other to recognize the sparkle each usually maintained in their eyes – one of his better command glares.  “And your excuse for not joining them?”


Will’s soft smile increased and he shrugged his shoulders.  “Couple of people we’re still keeping an eye on.  Frank and John took turns covering last night while I got some rest.”


Lee lowered his eyes.  He knew, of course, that Channing, the Delta Watch helmsman, had been bounced out of his bunk during the initial problem hard enough to cause a slight concussion.  After 24 hours he’d been released from Sick Bay, but not yet returned to active duty.  He also figured he knew who else Doc was referring to, and didn’t want to open that particular kettle of fish.  He dismissed the still quietly smiling doctor with an off-handed wave of his arm.  “Suit yourself,” he muttered, glanced toward the aft hatch where Chip appeared to be in serious consultation with Chief Sharkey, and went back to glaring at the charts, rescheduling timetables for the charting mission Seaview was currently on.


Will poured himself a cup of coffee from the carafe either Cookie or his assistant, Higgins, kept stocked in the Observation Nose, and settled casually into one of the chairs around the table, turning so that he could easily see both out Seaview’s herculite windows and back into the Conn.  He’d known the instant he’d first interviewed for the position of CMO that he was going to have his hands full.  Seaview’s designer/builder/owner, Admiral Harriman Nelson, was a fiery-tempered multi-billionaire who was very used to getting his own way.  And he had staffed his boat with intelligent, quick-witted sailors and technicians who could recognize a problem almost before it became one.  The men on board the giant submarine were dedicated and self-motivated, and Will knew that such men didn’t take kindly to limitations medical personnel might need to place on them for their own safety and well-being.


But Will was, himself, strong-willed and dedicated to his profession.  While working hard to keep up with as much new technology as possible, he still maintained that a good doctor treated the whole patient, not just an illness or injury.  Submarines were a highly specialized community.  While all of Will’s previous duties had either been on surface vessels or ashore he was well aware that, isolated sometimes for long periods of time, minor problems within the crew could escalate rapidly to major ones, both physically and mentally.


Will had quickly established himself with most of the crew as a conscientious but fair CMO.  He didn’t unnecessarily force limitations, and was willing to allow the men leeway in any situation where the discomfort of the few might not outweigh the survival of the many.  That didn’t mean that he slacked off on his duties; just that he was perfectly willing to wander around the boat tending to minor injuries instead of making the crewmen leave their emergency stations to come to him in Sick Bay.  He had no qualms about sidelining any more seriously injured man, and with the rank of Lt. Cdr. could easily enforce downtime for any crewman he determined warranted it.


Everyone, that is, except for the three senior officers aboard: Seaview’s Captain, XO, and Admiral Nelson.  The first few minutes of his initial interviews with all three, Will had known that he was in for an uphill battle.  But even then he wasn’t totally prepared for the full magnitude of what he was going to be up against.  Two things had so far kept Will from simply throwing up his hands and walking away.  The first was the result of a bit of forethought on his part – he’d required and gotten a statement written into his contract giving him total autonomy in all medical matters.  It wasn’t something that he flaunted, but had had to resort to a couple of times when dealing with Admiral Nelson, definitely a man used to getting his own way!


The second was a good deal subtler.  All three officers were bonded into a rather unique friendship.  Captain and XO had known each other since they were assigned as roommates upon entering Annapolis.  Nelson, then a captain, had met both soon after as an occasional instructor at the Naval Academy.  Lee and Chip were as close as brothers.  While it absolutely never interfered with command hierarchy, each cared deeply for the other.  And between Lee and the Admiral there existed a bond of…  Will wasn’t sure if even the two men could totally define their friendship.  That it included mentor-student was obvious.  But there were indications of an almost father-son relationship at times.  Will didn’t try to analyze it.  He was simply grateful that it existed.


Will sat quietly drinking his coffee, running through his options.  He could, of course, simply wait until Nelson was aboard and let the Admiral order Lee to his bunk.  Wouldn’t be the first time, Will acknowledged to himself.  A small smile escaped as he admitted that it would no doubt not be the last, either.  But Will was loath to play that particular card.  Years of dealing with Lee had given Will an extreme high regard for his CO.  And while Will had been known to get so frustrated with the younger man’s seemingly total disregard for his own health issues that he’d resorted to throwing stoneware mugs into bulkheads he did, honestly, empathize with the strong sense of duty behind Lee’s actions.  Will wasn’t comfortable undermining Lee’s authority without serious reason.  He could wish that Lee would rest, but as he wasn’t doing any great harm to himself, at least not yet, could justify merely keeping watch, and hope that Lee finally surrendered on his own.


Chip raised an eyebrow at Will, behind Lee’s back, as he returned to the chart table a few minutes later.  When Will just shrugged his shoulders, Chip decided that if the doctor wasn’t actively challenging Lee, things couldn’t be too serious.  He gave Lee a smile and went back to working on a new duty schedule now that everything was starting to calm down.


As soon as Lt. James appeared just before 0800 Chip went over the current Status Report with him, gave him the Conn, and nudged Lee.  “Come on, Skip.  Let’s go see what Cookie deems appropriate for an after-crisis breakfast celebration.”


Lee frowned but surrendered fairly peacefully.  He needed more coffee, but with Jamie sitting in the Nose hadn’t wanted to make a hit on the carafe there.  Grabbing his long-empty mug he headed aft, missing the “that was too easy,” Chip sent to no one in particular before following his CO.


They had worked their way through blueberry pancakes, thick slices of breakfast ham, and scrambled eggs, and were just pouring more coffee when they felt Seaview’s nose dip fractionally.  “Nice of the Admiral to show up, now that all the work’s done,” Chip teased Lee.  Lee backhanded his best friend, frowning.  But both quickly smiled and headed forward.


Admiral Nelson took his time unbuckling himself from FS1’s pilot seat.  As he stood up the aft hatch was triggered from outside, revealing Chief Sharkey and several crewmen standing ready to collect the supplies that Nelson had brought.  He nodded to the COB, then climbed the ladder up into the Conn.  A quick glance around revealed Will sitting, relaxed, in one of the chairs around the table in the Nose.  Nelson raised an eyebrow at the doctor’s easy grin of welcome, but his attention was caught by Lee and Chip’s entrance through the aft hatch.  Sharp eyes spotted the soft cast on Lee’s left hand.  Because of Will’s continued grin, coupled with the reports he’d already been faxed, Nelson decided that nothing too much could be wrong. 


As the younger men joined the older ones in the Nose, Nelson nodded toward the cast, his eyes sparkling.  “Which bulkhead is in need of having a fist-sized dent repaired?” he asked.  Will snorted softly as Chip gave a quick snicker.


“Wasn’t me,” Lee assured his boss.  “But we do need to get Chip more leave time.  I left him alone in the Conn for five minutes and he started making goo-goo eyes at a passing female gray whale.  Don’t know what he was saying to her, but she and her friends tried to figure out a way to get inside.”  Doc lost his battle with holding in his chuckles as Chip drew himself up straight, sent a glare Lee’s way that had been known to peel paint off concrete, spun on his heel, and headed for the Conn to put down a rebellion of soft snickers from the duty crew.


Nelson sent his captain a knowing look.  “Might a reminder to watch your back be in order?”


Lee shook his head.  “At least,” he amended, “not until we get back to port.”


Nelson gave a soft ‘harrumph,’ and again sent a glance toward the hard plastic cast.


“I’m fine,” Lee growled.  But his frown instantly turned sheepish and he added a soft, “sir.”


Something sounding suspiciously like a disgusted snort came from Will’s direction and Nelson, having heard that phrase from his captain far too many times over the years to believe a word of it, turned his head toward his CMO.


Will sent a quick glance toward the once-again frowning younger man, but gave the Admiral a small grin.  “A little short of sleep,” was his diagnosis.


“Along with pretty much everyone else aboard,” came softly from Lee, not willing to surrender.  Nelson continued to look at Will, who just shrugged.  “Thought you came forward for the supplies Admiral Nelson was bringing?”  Lee wasn’t about to lose control of this conversation if he could help it.


Will downed the last of his coffee.  “Seems it wasn’t necessary,” he admitted, nodding toward the open hatch down to FS1, from which steady sounds of activity were still coming.  “Guess I’ll head back and start putting things away.”  He sent Nelson a grin and headed back up the spiral stairs.


“I’ll walk as far as my cabin with you,” Nelson told him, sent his captain another grin, and followed the doctor.  Lee closed his eyes just a moment, shook his head, and headed back to the chart table.


As the two older men rounded a corner, now safely out of Lee’s hearing, Nelson sent the doctor a soft, “Will?”


Will stopped walking and grinned.  “Actually, for once, our workaholic Skipper is telling the truth.”


“And how short of sleep are you?”


Will laughed out loud.  “Not that short, Admiral,” he assured his boss, then frowned.  “I have to stay in top form to keep up with that…”


“Ahem,” Nelson cleared his throat with a grin.


“…young man,” Will finished tactfully. 


Nelson’s grin broadened.  “For which quite a few people are very grateful.”  Nelson gave his friend a clap on the shoulder.  “And which, I doubt you’ll ever let us forget,” he teased.


“Got that right,” Will muttered, before they both chuckled openly.  They’d reached the Admiral’s cabin and Nelson opened the door as Will continued on to Sick Bay.


* * * *


Lee managed to ignore his XO’s frowns and marginally snide harassment until 1145 hours.  By that time the crew had all the replacement parts the Admiral had brought installed, and Seaview was once again running at 100% efficiency.  Also, unfortunately by that time, he was no longer able to ignore the headache his lack of sleep was causing.  If it had just been the last 48 hours, Lee would have been perfectly capable of managing with little or no effect to his system.  It was something that regularly drove the people he worked with up the proverbial wall – Lee’s ability to manage on very limited sleep. 


Happily – for Lee – they didn’t know that he’d not been sleeping well for the last week.  It happened sometimes.  Lee never let it get to him.  Sometimes life just got the best of him and it took awhile to get straightened out again.  It would have been easier this time if he’d been able to take some time off.  Maybe rent a sailboat and head over to the Channel Islands for a couple of days.  But it didn’t happen.  He’d barely made it back from a small errand for ONI in time for this cruise. 


They’d been less than two days out when they’d encountered the apparently amorous whales, so Lee hadn’t even been allowed the comfort Seaview always brought to him.  There was, to Lee, something special about the oversized moveable marine laboratory.  She “spoke” to him in ways that even he didn’t totally understand.  He reveled in her smooth handling (most of the time) and quick maneuverability.  He protected her with a jealousy that made those around him smile, and those who didn’t know him frown.  But he easily acknowledged that she protected him just as much.  He relied on her strength, her courage, and her determination to do anything he asked of her.  And in turn she gave him safety, and sanity.  He felt more comfortable aboard her than he did anywhere else on earth.


He had been counting on that comfort to finally allow him to relax, and mentally “come down” from the tension that the ONI mission had left him with.  It wasn’t bad – this time.  There had been many missions that had left him much worse, and he’d managed to get through them all.  Frequently with Seaview’s help.


Just haven’t given her the time she needs.  He smiled softly, while once again absentmindedly reaching up to rub a throbbing temple.  Apparently it caused Chip to finally reach the end of his patience.  He dropped the clipboard he’d been studying onto the top of the chart table with a resounding clunk, drew himself up to his full height, crossed his arms, and stared at Lee.  As tired as Lee was, he still couldn’t resist teasing his old friend.  His grin broadened and he raised an eyebrow in silent question, and watched as at least half a dozen responses moved swiftly across Chip’s expressionful face – Chip may be noted by some as being totally unreadable, but not always; and especially not at times like this when Lee was involved.  This time, as each thought was more blistering than the last, Lee surrendered peacefully.  He reached out a hand and laid it briefly on Chip’s shoulder before making a judicious retreat to the sound of Chip’s soft release of air.  Just as he started up the spiral stairs to his cabin he glanced back.  Chip was still watching him, slowly shaking his head.  But Lee saw a soft smile start to touch the blond’s lips.


A heavy sigh escaped as Lee closed his cabin door behind him, and the total exhaustion he’d been fending off hit him full force.  It was a struggle, but Lee held it at bay just long enough to kick off his shoes, remove his uniform shirt, and swallow a couple of ibuprofen before falling face down on his bunk.


* * * *


Head down, studying a handful of computer printouts, Admiral Nelson stepped through the aft hatch into Seaview’s command center.  Barely looking up, he ambled toward the Observation Nose, nearly to the chart table before he realized that Lt. James was the most senior officer in the room.  Nelson pointed an eyebrow at the young man.


“Mr. Morton left for the Wardroom about fifteen minutes ago, sir,” James answered.  “And the Skipper went to his cabin a short time before that.”


“Willingly?” Nelson asked, with a small smile.


Chris didn’t return the grin.  He was still too new, and nervous around the Admiral, to allow that much familiarity.  But he did answer easily, nonetheless.  “It appeared so, sir.”


Nelson’s grin broadened.  With a nod he turned and retraced his steps, headed for the Wardroom.  He found Chip already halfway through a thick roast beef sandwich, large helping of macaroni salad, and one of Cookie’s ‘death by chocolate’ brownies, a two-inch cube of super-rich, double chocolate treat slathered with half an inch of chocolate cream cheese frosting.  “Cookie was obviously expecting Lee for lunch,” he said, headed for the coffee pot.  Seaview’s premier chef tended to reserve the brownies for his Skipper, and only shared reluctantly with everyone else.


Chip grinned, and finished swallowing a bite of salad before answering.  “Isn’t overjoyed that Lee’s skipping lunch.”  He sent a glance toward the galley when a loud ‘harrumph’ was heard.  “But I convinced him that sleep was a much more needed commodity than food at the moment.”  A kettle banged loudly.


“Apparently with limited success.”  Will had followed Nelson into the Wardroom, and heard Chip’s comment.  Chip smiled, shrugged, and took a big bite of the sandwich.  As the two older men sat down opposite Chip, their plates a bit less loaded than Chip’s had been originally but with the same items, Will pointed a raised eyebrow at the XO.


“Dead on his feet and fighting a killer headache,” Chip answered the all-too-plain question.  “But other than the wrist, uninjured.  At least,” he amended, “as far as I know.  Sharkey hasn’t made any little ‘comments’ as he’s wont to do when one of the crew has mentioned anything that Lee doesn’t deem necessary to report.”  All three men smiled – Will, perhaps, a bit less than the other two.


“And he didn’t come back from the ONI errand with any injuries,” Nelson offered.


“For a change,” Chip growled, and stuffed a forkful of salad in his mouth.  The other two gave him indulgent smiles.  Chip made no bones about his disapproval of Lee’s continued connections to the Navy’s intelligence unit.


“I’ll wander up and check on him after a bit,” Will said.


Chip nodded.  “And I’ll roust him for supper.  If he sleeps much longer than that he’ll be up all night.”


“Gently, Chip,” Nelson cautioned, albeit with a large grin.


Chip returned it.  “No way he’s tossing me headfirst into his desk again.  Learned my lesson the first time.”*  Both Nelson and Will chuckled.  Chip looked at Will.  “What’s your secret, Doc?  So far he’s never flattened you.”


“Ah, but I try very hard not to wake him up,” Will smirked.  “I leave that to you as much as possible.”


“Gee, thanks,” Chip grumbled, as Nelson choked on a snort of laughter.


Continuing the pleasant chatter, Nelson gave himself a silent pat on the back.  Snagging Chip away from the Navy and into the Reserves, to serve as Seaview’s Executive Officer, had been one of the best, most productive, decisions he’d made when it came to staffing his pride and joy.  Chip was organized to the point of almost being anal, serious but fair about discipline, totally understood his boat and his crew, and did everything in his not insignificant power to keep things running smoothly.  John Phillips, Seaview’s original Captain, had given Chip the high honor of calling him one of the finest XO’s in the Navy, to which Nelson had added his wholehearted agreement.


But Phillips had been content to keep Chip in that position, and keep the running of the boat herself, and her cruises, under his own control.  Not that Chip cared.  He was perfectly happy with the division of duties.  He’d always maintained that he was happiest with the XO’s position, and never wanted his own command.


Lee’s arrival after Phillips’ untimely death had subtly changed Chip’s role.  Slowly, so that Chip hadn’t been totally aware that it was even happening, Lee had let Chip handle more of the day-to-day running of the giant submarine’s missions.  Nelson knew that part of the reason was his own doing – he was taking up more of Lee’s time than he had Phillips, asking for Lee’s input on future NIMR projects and proposals.  Phillips had never shown any interest along those lines, preferring to focus on the tasks at hand, and Nelson had quickly learned not to bother him.  But Lee was interested in ‘everything,’ it always seemed.  He quickly proved extremely adept at ferreting out minor glitches, or solving what on the surface looked like minor details, but could have led to serious complications had they been left unchallenged.


At the same time, mostly because of Lee and Chip’s many years of friendship, Chip took a good deal of the lead in reining in his very conscientious Captain.  For which both Admiral and CMO were extremely grateful.  Lee had absolutely no problems putting himself in the line of fire at any time where it would save putting one of his crew in danger.  There was no doubt in Nelson’s mind why his original CMO had suddenly decided that he wanted shore duty not long after Lee’s arrival.  Nelson understood what drove Lee because they were, in many ways, much alike.  In Nelson’s case it was a passion to learn as much about, so as to protect, the two-thirds of his planet that was underwater, and he knew that he could be totally focused in his pursuits to the exclusion of everything else.  Lee was just as passionate but he focused on protecting those around him, keeping them safe, whether or not it meant sacrificing himself to do so.  Lee often harassed Chip about his “just looking after my Captain, as any good XO does’ comments, when Chip got a little too carried away.  But, while it absolutely never got in the way of Command structure Chip was, nevertheless, always the first line of Lee’s protection against forgetting to take care of himself as well.


Nelson’s private smile increased as Will nattered at Chip about having to pump Chip’s stomach when he snagged another of the oh-so-rich brownies out from under Cookie’s frown.  Dr. Will Jamison’s arrival had been another extremely clever feather in Nelson’s cap.  The previous CMO’s departure had left Nelson with a quandary that took him several months – and several unsatisfactory replacements – to solve.  He needed someone on board who could, first, tolerate life aboard a submarine.  Second, they had to be able to tolerate Seaview’s occasionally out-of-the-norm missions, and the slightly weird injuries that could result from them.  Third, they had to have the temperament for getting along with a boat full of people focused more strongly on doing their jobs than taking care of themselves.  That last was what had caused the departure of Seaview’s original CMO.  The first year hadn’t been too bad.  Kneedler had served on submarines before, understood what it took to be a submariner, and handled the crew fairly but easily.  Nelson had heard a few grumbles from the JO’s, and Phillips had mentioned once in passing that Chip wasn’t overly happy at being sidelined for twenty-four hours with what was apparently a very mild concussion.  Nelson had had a couple of run-ins with Kneedler over minor injuries but he’d just ignored the man, slapped on a band-aid, and gone back to work.


Lee’s arrival was, apparently, the last straw.  Now having two men on board who totally ignored him – Phillips had remained disgustingly healthy and uninjured during his tenure – Kneedler had not been quiet about voicing his displeasure.  And it wasn’t long before that displeasure grew, as more and more of the crew started following their Skipper’s lead and became more stubborn about allowing the CMO to place them on the Binnacle List for what they considered no good reason.  His authority seriously undermined, Kneedler wanted out!


Nelson thought that he’d screened the first several applicants well, but none had been able to stand up to Seaview’s challenges.  He knew that Chip was doing everything he could to see that Lee ate and slept at regular intervals.  Not that Lee didn’t take care of himself.  But he could get easily distracted if things weren’t going well, and food and sleep tended to be very low on his list of priorities.  And, as Chip had alluded to earlier, Lee’s occasional errands for ONI rarely left him totally in one piece.  Seaview needed a CMO who could ‘handle’ Lee.


Some serious digging through Navy records had brought Will’s name to light.  While he’d never served on a submarine before, his personal interest in studying the issues inherent in close-knit, isolated communities drew Nelson’s attention.  As did Will’s grades in Med school and his continuing education courses.  All of his fit-reps listed him as a conscientious, caring physician, highly intelligent, and a man who focused on his patients as a whole.  A couple of his former CO’s commented on his strong will and determination – Nelson read into those that they had apparently locked horns with the doctor over some issue or another, and lost!  Nelson had immediately contacted Will and asked if he’d interview for the job.


Nor had he been disappointed.  Will had proven his merit – and his metal – on his first cruise.  At almost Nelson’s age, the two had quickly formed an easy friendship.  Will had proven adept at handling the craziness that Seaview sometimes challenged her crew with, as well as the crew itself.  And if he occasionally got frustrated with a certain Commander – not to mention an equally irritating Lt. Commander – he kept enough of a sense of humor to get him through the problems with his sanity intact. Nelson chose to ignore the times Will had locked horns with him, and simply sent the doctor a silent toast for his perseverance, tenacity, and amiable stubbornness.


The only drawback had been Will’s disgust at having to learn to dive.  He was absolutely convinced that the only safe way to be underwater was with a submarine around him.  Unfortunately, as a crewmember, he had to be a certified scuba diver.  But with perseverance – and a few nights of Nelson inviting him over for a good stiff drink - Will had gotten past that obstacle.  His yearly recertifications were still a time for a bit of trepidation on Chip’s part, as it was the XO’s job to see to the tests.  Nelson always laughed at his two senior officers on that day each year.  Lee would make himself scarce, but show up in time to take his friend out for a couple of what he’d heard was their own share of stiff drinks.  Let it never be said that the CO didn’t stand in support of his XO when the need arose.


Chip finishing his meal brought Nelson’s ruminations to an end.  He gave his two officers – and friends – a smile as he headed back to his lab.  Chip headed back to the Conn, and Will headed for Lee’s cabin.


* * * *


Lee had been hoping that his exhaustion – and the headache – would drive all other thoughts away.  And at first, at least, it worked.  He remained dreamless, allowing Seaview’s powerful rhythms to lull him into a state of contented safety.  But all too soon the unease he’d been feeling over how the ONI mission had ended once more settled over him.  Even knowing that there had been nothing he could have done differently to change the outcome didn’t alleviate his frustrations and, as had happened all too regularly since that fateful day, he found his comfort disturbed to the point of waking him up.  Unlike the other times, this time he wasn’t alone.


“Sorry,” Will apologized, standing slightly away from the bunk.  “Didn’t mean to disturb you.”


Lee gave him a small smile, more grimace than anything, and sat up.  “You didn’t,” he admitted, and ran a hand through his short dark hair, unrulier than he liked from an apparent restless encounter with his pillow.


Will settled a hip on the corner of Lee’s desk.  “Want to talk about it?” he asked casually.  He easily recognized the symptoms; something was troubling his overly conscientious Skipper.  He also knew, only too well, that Lee kept such problems to himself for the most part so was prepared for Lee’s response.


“What about?”  He sent Will a raised eyebrow.


Will kept the soft, easy smile on his face.  “About whatever it was that did disturb your sleep.”


Lee lowered his eyes, not looking at Will directly, but shook his head.  “It’s nothing, Jamie.  No big deal.”


Will didn’t believe a word of it.  He also knew that tackling the problem head on was the quickest way of having Lee clam up totally, so he chose to keep smiling and come at it sideways.  “Don’t suppose that you’d let me give you something a little stronger for that headache than ibuprofen?” he asked gently.


Lee frowned.  On the one hand, it would be almost comforting to accept one of Will’s extra-strength painkillers and slip into oblivion for a few hours.  But his strong sense of duty refused to let him accept the solution – what he considered the coward’s way out.  He knew that the problem wouldn’t go away until he found a way to accept what had happened without acrimony, and he couldn’t do that while drugged into nonexistence.  “No,” he finally answered.  Realizing that the word hadn’t come out with his usual authority, he followed it by glaring at the CMO.


Will just continued his soft smile.  He’d learned that, on all too infrequent occasions, he could keep Lee from openly challenging him by remaining calm and casual.  “Perhaps later, after supper,” he acquiesced.  “If it’s still bothering you,” he added quickly as Lee’s frown increased.  “Everything’s back to normal.  You really need to get some rest to be ready for whatever craziness happens next around here.”


Despite his irritation, Lee had to smile softly.  Jamie knew all too well how quickly chaos could rain down on Seaview and her crew.  Lee also admitted that he probably wasn’t in good enough shape right at the moment to handle another crisis.  That didn’t mean that he had to admit it, however,  “Perhaps,” he told Jamie, with ever so slight a smile.


Will decided to quit while he was ahead – sort of – and stood up.  He started to say something about Lee laying back down, decided to leave well enough alone since Lee was still being fairly amiable, and left.  Lee wasn’t stupid – although both Will and Chip had been known to comment otherwise.  Will could see that Lee was acknowledging the issue even if he wasn’t totally ready to give in to it.  That, at least, was a start in the right direction.  Time enough to fuss if it got any more serious without Lee taking measures to correct the problem, whatever it was.


Lee was a little surprised that Jamie had surrendered so easily.  That made twice in one day that the CMO had all but let Lee off the hook.  “He’s up to something,” Lee muttered, then gave himself a shake and a sheepish grin.  He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t hated doctors for what he felt was their interference in how he chose to take care of himself, and had pretty much come to totally ignore any that he came in contact with.  That included one Dr. Will Jamison when he’d first come aboard Seaview.  He’d quickly come to trust Jamie’s skills as a physician and surgeon as he treated whatever problems Seaview’s crew threw at him.  Trusting Jamie with his own health issues had taken longer.  But there had come a time when Jamie’s patience and perseverance had finally won Lee over.  It didn’t stop the battle of wills that all too frequently erupted between the two, and their occasional shouting matches had become the stuff of Seaview legend.  But the arguments were conducted fairly, without getting personal, both men acknowledging the other’s intelligence and strong sense of duty, and were pretty even as to who won.  Lee trusted Jamie as he trusted very few people in his life.


But that doesn’t mean that I totally surrender to Jamie’s will, and he chuckled at that little play on words as he got up and washed his face.  Taming his unruly curls proved an impossible challenge, and Lee decided that he was definitely overdue for a haircut.  He’d have to remedy that by dropping in on Eddy Carlson, one of Seaview’s Damage Control specialists, who also doubled as the boat’s barber.  For now, however, Lee settled into his large desk chair and started to work on the items in his ‘In’ basket.


Chip found him there just before 1800 hours.  When there was no answer to his light knock Chip stuck his head in the door.  He smiled as he realized Lee was sound asleep in the chair, reports scattered across the desk.  It was almost tempting to leave him there.  But Chip had promised.  And besides, if Lee missed another meal there would be no living with Cookie.  The temperamental chef took his responsibilities seriously.


Several options flashed through Chip’s slightly twisted brain for how to awaken Lee, but in the end he chose the simplest.  “Hey, sleepyhead,” he said loudly, and had the satisfaction of watching Lee startle badly before realizing where he was, and with whom.


Lee blinked, and glared at Chip.  “Status Report,” he demanded.


“Everything is under control and its suppertime,” Chip answered instantly.  “Sir,” he added, before grinning broadly.


Lee muttered something slightly rude but took the hint, made a brief trip to the head, and followed a somewhat more forthcoming XO aft as Chip caught him up on where, exactly, Seaview was, and how far away they were from the area Nelson wanted to re-chart after several reported underwater earthquakes had made previous charts worthless.  There were a couple of crew updates as Channing was returned to limited duty, and Mickelson was placed on it after a minor miscalculation with a fuse box.  They were met at the Wardroom door by Nelson and Will, and a beaming Cookie watched as all four filled their plates with broiled salmon steaks, caesar salad, peas with pearl onions, and freshly made whole wheat rolls.  The chef appeared totally beside himself with glee when a suddenly famished Lee asked for a second helping of the molten chocolate pudding cake that Cookie had made for dessert, knowing that it was one of Lee’s favorites.  Lee was instantly embarrassed by the attention that brought him from the other three.  But he admitted to Chip, as the pair made their way back to the Conn so that Lee could see for himself that all was well, that the headache had disappeared, to be replaced by his appetite.  Chip teased him about maybe taking an afternoon nap more often, Lee smacked his old friend upside the head, and they entered the aft hatch to the Conn still laughing.


Lee spent some time ambling around the Conn, visiting with all the Duty crew and re-connecting with current conditions.  It was a typical ‘Lee’ thing to do, as he often spent afternoons in his cabin catching up on paperwork.  Once comfortable that he was again up-to-date, he wandered around the boat visiting all the different departments.  The crew called it Lee’s ‘walkaboat’, and greatly appreciated their Skipper’s interest in them and their well-being.  They also liked to see him back to his usual, relaxed, self after the last couple of days’ chaos.  The senior officers were not alone in recognizing Lee’s signs of discord, and they tried their best to alleviate as much of it as their own actions could influence.


Lee only smiled when Chip tracked him down in the Missile Room just before 2200 hours, visiting with Kowalski and Patterson as they performed standard maintenance checks on the dive gear stored there.  Chip herded him gently in the direction of his cabin – and hopefully his bunk, although Chip studiously avoided mentioning that directly.  And Lee actually went peacefully, totally prepared to fall into his bunk for what would hopefully be his usual regenerative rest. 


It didn’t happen.  No sooner had he closed his eyes than the images from his last few hours on the ONI mission hit him, along with the return of his headache.  He willed both to go away, and actually managed a couple hours of sleep before both drove him from his rack and back to his desk chair.  That didn’t last long either and he surrendered, re-dressed, and made another walkthrough of the boat.  All of the crewmen he encountered were only too aware that the late night ‘walkaboat’ translated into a troubled Skipper.  That included the Duty Crew in the Conn, where he spent nearly an hour visiting quietly with Lt. Keeter discussing some advanced classes in naval architecture that NIMR offered to personnel at a ‘work at your own speed’ level to facilitate those people assigned to Seaview who couldn’t be expected to maintain regular classroom hours.  It happened often enough that no one was overly worried.  They all knew that it would be mentioned to Chief Sharkey, if he didn’t happen to already know.  It would then be relayed to either Mr. Morton or Admiral Nelson.  Or both.  Those two could be counted on to figure out what was bothering the Skipper, find a way to take care of it, and everything would get back to normal.  Such was the way of life aboard Seaview.


But it was Will who found Lee in the Wardroom just before 0600, working on his third cup of coffee.  The CMO frowned slightly, deciding that letting Chip handle the situation last night on his own had apparently not been as successful as Chip thought it had been.  It was Lee, however, who initiated conversation.


“You’re up awfully early, Doc.  Something going on that I haven’t heard about?”


Several answers ran through Will’s mind, all of them guaranteed to totally tick Lee off, so Will settled on the truth.  “Went to bed earlier than usual, so woke up too early.  Should have known better than to let John talk me into crashing before 2100 hours.”


Lee chuckled.  It wouldn’t have surprised him at all to learn that someone had ratted to the doctor – probably either Chip or Sharkey – that Lee had been up most of the night.  As soon as he’d seen Jamie walk through the Wardroom door he’d geared himself up to be challenged about it.  Jamie’s quiet self-incrimination defused Lee’s tension.  He relaxed and watched the doctor pour himself a cup of Cookie’s potent morning brew, and sit down opposite him.  “That will teach you,” he teased.


“And your excuse?” Will teased right back with a grin.


Lee just shrugged.  “Comes with the territory,” he answered somewhat enigmatically.


“Humm,” was Will’s response, taking a long draught from his mug.


“Waffles and scrambled eggs ready in about ten minutes,” Cookie called from the galley.


“Sounds good, Cookie,” Lee called back.  “But I’ll be down later with Mr. Morton and the Admiral.”  He rose, refilled his coffee mug, and headed forward to the Conn.


“See that you are,” Will muttered, judiciously waiting until Lee was out of the room before doing so.  He glanced at Cookie, who nodded back.  Both acknowledged Chip to be the expert at getting a reluctant-for-whatever-reason Lee to eat properly without totally ticking him off.


Lee wasn’t overly hungry.  But he also knew that he was being watched.  Not eating was a sure way to gain further unwanted attention.  His current out-of-norm actions were causing enough already without attracting more.  He wandered forward casually, and was in earnest conversation with Rawn over something that sounded suspiciously like whale songs coming through the hydrophones when Chip bounced down the spiral stairs at 0645.  They were outside normal gray whale migration paths, and Lee promptly told his XO to kindly send his girlfriends back to their own territory.  Chip glared around the Conn, effectively putting a stop to everyone’s muffled chuckles except Lee’s.  He grabbed the extra headset out of Lee’s hand, listening intently for about thirty seconds before handing the set back to Rawn.


“Not my friends,” he told his CO firmly.  “Those are Orcas and you jolly well know the difference.”


“Just checking to make sure you did,” Lee smarted back with a grin.  Rawn snorted softly, and Lee clapped him on the shoulder before heading back to the chart table.  He listened quietly as Keeter caught Chip up to date, and then headed amiably back to the Wardroom for a breakfast he still didn’t particularly want, but knew that he’d better eat just to keep the peace.


* * * *


Seaview arrived at the area Nelson wanted to re-chart the following afternoon.  The only thing that occurred out of the normal, everyday, happenings aboard the giant submarine in the intervening hours was Lee telling Doc that he wanted the light cast off of his left wrist, after once again nearly spilling coffee all over the chart table, and Will gently talking him out of it.  The doctor patiently explained that the wrist still needed support from the bad sprain that Lee had incurred.  He agreed that an ace bandage would be just as helpful, but pointed out that the light splint didn’t have to be taken off and re-wrapped every time Lee took a shower, and could be easily wiped clean if Lee got it grungy messing around in Seaview’s innards as he was all too often apt to do.  Lee surrendered but only grudgingly, and only after Admiral Nelson, in front of whom the conversation took place, pointed an eyebrow at Lee.  So far the Admiral had not mentioned Lee’s slightly off-kilter behavior this cruise, and Lee was doing everything he could to keep it that way.


He still wasn’t sleeping well, but he’d avoided any more late night wanderings through the boat by staying busy during the day and doing all of his paperwork after Nelson, Chip, and Doc had gone to bed.  There was always the possibility that one of the JO’s, or a crewman with business that took him through Officers’ Country during the night, would report seeing Lee’s cabin lights on, so Lee took the precaution of stuffing a towel against the crack at the bottom of the door.  He did, honestly, try to sleep.  And usually managed at least a couple of hours before being awakened by his overactive conscience and spending the rest of the night at his desk.


Lee knew that he was in trouble when, on the morning of the third day of charting, his lack of sleep caused a momentary lapse of judgment and he bit Chip’s head off for no good reason.  Chip took it stoically, and Lee immediately apologized.  But he knew that the lapse would be recognized by his highly intelligent and ‘tuned in’ XO for what it was, severe over-tiredness, and promptly reported.  He excused himself and went to his cabin to await being landed on.  It wasn’t a long wait.


He was expecting Admiral Nelson to charge in and demand an explanation for Lee’s unusual behavior.  Lee wasn’t overly sure what he was going to say, beyond the simple truth that the last ONI mission was still troubling him and he wasn’t being able to sleep well because of it.  He was sure that Nelson would require some drug-induced downtime, and was hoping that that would be the end of it.  Lee knew that he needed sleep desperately, and would just have to be more careful in the future if he was still unable to rest on his own.


Instead there was a soft tap on the door, and Will ambled in at Lee’s call to enter.  He smiled softly at Lee’s puzzled expression, and settled easily into the visitor’s chair next to Lee’s desk.  “Are you ready now to talk about what’s bothering you, or should I send Chip in to yell at you for an hour or so first?” he asked softly, still smiling.


Lee had lowered his eyes as the doctor started talking, glancing up just enough to let Jamie know that he was listening but not meeting Jamie’s gaze directly.  He did give a quick smile at the implied threat of turning Chip loose on him.  It wouldn’t be the first time that Lee had listened to a long tirade from the blond, pointing out in no uncertain terms all of Lee’s supposed character flaws without ever once resorting to anything so crass as a swear word.


“It’s nothing, Jamie.  Really,” he tried to talk himself out of the hole that he’d dug.  He knew that it was useless, but it would be expected.  And if he didn’t play the game properly, everyone would start to worry about him even more than they already were.


“Nothing doesn’t keep you from sleeping even the little bit your crazy system seems to require,” Will countered, the slightest edge in his voice.  But he kept the soft smile on his face.


Lee just closed his eyes and sighed heavily.  He was never a match for Jamie’s gentle strength of will when he, himself, knew that he was totally without justification for his actions.  He reopened his eyes and focused on the little injection kit Jamie had in his shirt pocket.  “I gather my punishment for current crimes means getting stood down for the next indeterminate number of hours.”  He finally looked directly at the doctor.


“If that’s the only solution you’ll accept.  I’d prefer you get off your chest whatever is bothering you, cut yourself whatever slack you need to get off the hook you’ve obviously strung yourself up on, and get back to the old workaholic persona we’ve all grown used to.”  He chuckled openly at Lee’s instant glare for that irreverent observation, no matter how true it happened to be.  “But one way or the other, you need rest.”


“I know,” Lee said softly, his eyes once more lowered.  When he said nothing else, it was Will’s turn to sigh.


“Then bed,” he ordered, not unkindly.  He waited patiently for Lee to strip off his uniform and replace it with pj’s, injecting Lee’s arm with a strong sedative before Lee buttoned up the top.


Lee crawled between the sheets on his bunk, already fighting to keep his eyes open as Will covered him with the blankets. Will caught the struggle and shook his head.  “Skipper,” he admonished, “can’t you ever, even in this situation, just accept the inevitable and fall asleep without automatically fighting the meds?”


“No,” Lee answered honestly, and sent his CMO a brief grin.


Will sent it back.  “Trust me.  With what I just gave you, even you don’t stand a chance.”  It was a long-standing feud between the two that Lee was somehow able to pull himself out from under whatever sedative the doctor used.  Both grinned more broadly, but Lee’s didn’t last long as the meds quickly claimed him.  Will waited a few minutes longer just to be sure, turned down the cabin lights, and left.  What he’d used should keep Lee under for at least twelve hours.  Hopefully longer, given Lee’s already exhausted state.  Will wasn’t holding his breath.


* * * *


Lee surprised everyone – including himself – and slept nearly the clock around.  He did wake up once during the night but almost immediately went back to sleep, not waking again until shortly after his normal 0530.  He was just stepping out of the head, towel wrapped around his waist after his shower, when his cabin door opened after the briefest of knocks.


“Feel better?” Chip asked carefully.  There was no telling how Lee would react to the enforced downtime, no matter how amiable Jamie reported that he’d been at the time.


“Yes, Mother Hen,” Lee snarled, before sending Chip a soft grin.


Chip returned it.  “Good, because we ran across a puzzle while you were napping.”


“What kind of puzzle,” Lee demanded, instantly back in full CO mode, and took his glare off of Chip only as long as it took him to start reaching for his clothes.


Chip couldn’t help himself and grinned.  “Down, Lee.  Just a little one.  Seems we’re right in the middle of the area where the several earthquakes were reported.  With all the changes that we’ve been finding…”  Lee nodded.  As soon as they had hit Nelson’s target area, visibility had been drastically reduced from debris still floating through the disturbed waters.  Ground changes had also been instantly noted, in places with dramatic results.  Where once there was a depression there was now a seamount.  And vice versa.  At first they thought that maybe their GPS was off a degree or two.  Once they established that not to be the case, they slowly started to totally re-map the area.  “We were a little unprepared,” Chip continued, “to find the epicenter totally unchanged.”


Lee’s head popped up.  “Totally?” he questioned.  Chip just nodded.  “What’s the Admiral saying?”  Lee went back to getting dressed.


“At the moment, scratching his head.”  Lee looked at Chip again, and Chip grinned and continued.  “Well, the last count of theories was, I believe, seven.  Although I may not have heard them all.”  Lee joined Chip in grinning.  That sounded like the Admiral, alright.


“His course of action?”


“Sitting dead center while he ponders his options.”


“That’s all?”  That most definitely didn’t sound like the Admiral.


“For the night, at least.  I rather suspect that things will get hopping this morning.”


Lee nodded.  Finished tucking in his shirttails, he headed for the cabin door.  Chip, recognizing the signs of “CO in Command,” stepped to one side and quietly followed Lee down to the Conn.


It didn’t take Lee long to catch up with what he’d missed.  No one mentioned his absence most of the previous 24 hours.  Chip wondered how much trouble he’d have getting Lee down to the Wardroom, but as soon as Lee was content that he had a firm handle on what was happening, went along fairly peaceably.  Although, Chip figured that it might have had something to do with the fact that the carafe of coffee in the Nose was inexplicably empty.


They were almost immediately joined by the Admiral and CMO.  Again the previous day was not referred to.  For the most part, Chip and Will sat quietly listening to Nelson outline all of the various possibilities for the strange disturbance pattern – or lack thereof, as it were – and he and Lee discuss all the assorted options for trying to solve the mystery.


What they finally settled on as a first step was to collect water and seabed samples from the outer perimeter of the undisturbed area.  Most of the bottom was shallow enough for divers, although one stretch would need to be done using FS1.  Nelson had brought along a rough map of the area and he and Lee plotted the dives, where Nelson wanted the samples taken from, and how many dive teams to send out.  As Lee was listing off teams to Chip, a loud clearing of Will’s throat momentarily had Lee glaring in his direction.  But Will sent it right back, and Lee softly substituted Chip’s name for his own on one of the teams.  Chip didn’t quite get a smirk buried fast enough in his coffee cup for Lee to miss it, and a foot instantly connected with Chip’s shin.  But other than that, the substitution went unmentioned.


Chip and Lee were headed back to the Conn when there was a broadcast of incoming turbulence, followed by Seaview gently rocking side to side a couple of times before settling back in trim.  Lee and Chip hurried forward but Lt. Keeter, assisted by a recently arrived Lt. James, had everything under control by the time they arrived.  As the new watch came on duty Chip handed Chief Sharkey a more orderly dive schedule than the one that he’d hastily scribbled in the Wardroom.  The COB had some momentary qualms about being stuck with Divemaster duties when the Admiral was headed out with FS1.  As Chip leveled one of his better glares at the man, Lee offhandedly mentioned that since Nelson wanted to handle the collections himself, piloting FS1 could be left to Riley.  Lee wasn’t sure how Chip kept a straight face long enough for Sharkey to decide that he’d been out-maneuvered and head aft.  He’d no more than made it out the aft hatch when Chip lost it, and had to walk into the Nose to get himself once more composed enough to re-join Lee.  But before he could say anything, Nelson called down for Lee to join him in the lab.  Still barely able to keep a straight face, Chip gave Lt. James the Conn, called Riley forward to start the pre-flight on the Flying Sub, and headed for the Missile Room.  He wasn’t holding his breath that the COB hadn’t immediately said something to the Admiral and gotten jobs reassigned so that he would be piloting FS1.  The next twenty minutes or so could get extremely interesting.


Lee was thinking the same thing as he entered Nelson’s lab.  It wouldn’t be the first time that he’d had his orders countermanded by a little subterfuge on the Chief’s part.  But he’d had almost as much trouble as his XO, keeping a straight face as Sharkey left the Conn.


Nelson raised an eyebrow at Lee as the younger man walked up to him, but continued to gather what equipment he needed for his collections.  “I told Sharkey that you had a good reason for your crew assignments,” he commented dryly.  But there was a mischievous sparkle in his eyes that didn’t go unnoticed.


“A very good one, sir,” Lee answered, but he couldn’t keep the smile out of his voice.  “With both you and Chip ‘outside’, I needed my most experienced Divemaster on duty.  And as you’ll be doing your own collections you’ll only need a pilot, not someone versed in running the other controls.”


Nelson nodded, his eyes still sparkling.  “Precisely what I told the Chief.”  He paused.  “You okay being left behind?”  There was sincere caring in the question.


Lee just smiled.  “Yes, sir.  Proper penance for recent actions.”


Nelson nudged him with an elbow.  “Maybe we can talk Will into letting you go out on the next set.  I rather suspect that it’s going to take several more dives to make sense of all this.”


Lee gave him a sheepish grin.  “Not holding my breath,” he answered softly.  Nelson chuckled, and the two headed forward.


As young seaman Riley popped his head out of the open hatch from FS1 to grab the equipment Nelson was taking along, Lee made a point of aiming a particularly meaningful expression at him.  Riley duly noted it, gave his Skipper a short nod, and popped back inside the little craft.  Nelson, having seen the exchange, sent Lee a quick grin before starting down the access ladder.


While there were those on board who might question Seaview’s youngest crewman’s talents, Nelson wasn’t one of them.  He’d flown with Riley before and found him to be an excellent pilot - despite Chip’s histrionics over what happened when the XO had given Riley his first lessons.  And he wasn’t even upset that Sharkey had tried to get Nelson to countermand the assignment.  It was so typically Sharkey.  Nelson was perfectly aware of the man’s sometimes rather unorthodox actions. He also knew that Chip had to put down the occasional rebellion with the JO’s because of it.  But he was also aware, as were Chip and Lee - and the JO’s when they thought about it - that Sharkey ran one of the tightest boats it had ever been Nelson’s pleasure to be aboard.  If he chose to do things a little...sideways...well, so be it.  He never outright challenged Lee, Chip was perfectly capable of keeping him in his place, and everyone else just had to learn to deal with him.


Nelson realized that he was grinning broadly from his ruminations when Riley sent him a questioning look.  He gave the young man a quick grin and started outlining what he wanted to accomplish.  Riley, young but extremely bright and quick-witted, took one glance at the chart Nelson held out, and began preparations for launching the little yellow craft.


* * * *


Sharkey very carefully supervised sending out the six 2-man teams.  Not because one of the teams included Mr. Morton, but simply that he was doing the job the only way he knew how - the right way!  While he had originally been a bit miffed not to be going with the Admiral, he immediately understood the need to remain aboard Seaview with both Nelson and Morton off boat.  He made sure that not only did all the teams have their assigned search areas, but that he had an exact location as well in case anything should go wrong.  He wasn’t at all surprised when the Skipper showed up as the first teams were going out.  With Seaview just holding station he could easily leave Lt. James with the Conn and come down to where the real action was.  Sharkey was a little surprised that he wasn’t out on the dive himself.  The Skipper’s love of diving was second only to his devotion to Seaview.  But while no one had said anything to Sharkey, even when he’d all but asked the Admiral point blank, “something” had happened the day before and Lee had been absent from all of his usual haunts aboard.


All seemed back to normal today, however.  The Skipper was still wearing the light cast on his wrist, so maybe that was why he wasn’t allowed to dive.  Yeah, bet that’s it, Sharkey told himself, and greeted his Skipper cheerfully.  He thought about saying something along those lines as the two chatted about what the divers might find.  But he quickly decided against it.  Despite not diving, the Skipper seemed to be in a good mood, and Sharkey didn’t want to do anything that could mess that up.


The teams were expected to be out about an hour, with FS1 gone probably about twice that, depending on what Nelson was finding.  The first couple of teams were already in and beginning to strip off their gear when Lt. James called down.  “Skipper, please report to the Conn,” the young watch officer said with a bit of nerves coming clearly through the mic.  “Rawn is picking up something unusual on the hydrophones.”


“On my way,” Lee answered instantly.  “Chief, better get the rest of the teams in, just in case.”


“Aye, aye, sir,” Sharkey responded, and started issuing the necessary orders as Lee hurried from the room.


But he was just walking in the aft hatch to the Conn when Seaview did a spectacular rendition of a belly roll, sending men flying in every which direction.  The Conn lit up like a hundred sparklers went off simultaneously.  Lee was flung momentarily into space, but was somehow able to grab the bolted down seat at the magnometer unit, the first duty station inside the room, and keep himself from flying any further until Seaview started to settle down.  Even as he began issuing orders, crewmen were already busy putting out small fires, checking with other departments for damage, and generally getting things back under control.  But he had only a moment to acknowledge his finely trained crew before he noted that Chris James wasn’t helping.  A quick search found the young lieutenant curled against the bottom of the spiral stairs, a dark smear on the deck next to his head.


Lee took just long enough to make sure Chris was breathing, and hurried to call Sick Bay.  A very harried-sounding corpsman answered his call, and promised to have someone there “as soon as we can.”  Lee could only imagine the number of injuries Seaview’s sudden roll had caused.  As the senior officer in the Conn, all he could do was start taking damage reports and triaging what needed to be fixed first to keep anyone else from getting hurt, even though what he really wanted to be doing was running through the boat helping wherever he could.


To say that the next few minutes were chaos would have been putting it mildly.  But it could have been much worse.  Apparently the belly roll had happened so quickly that, while crewmen were flung about, there were not a lot of major injuries.  One of the first things Lee had done was to contact Nelson.  The turbulence, which at that point still hadn’t been pinpointed - had flung the littler craft sideways.  Both Nelson and Riley, snug in their safety harnesses, were uninjured, as was FS1.  Visibility was next to zero, but they were making their way back slowly on instrumentation.


Will himself showed up in the Conn just as Lee was completing that call.  He glanced at Lee, but Lee just pointed toward the still unmoving lieutenant.  Sparks appeared at Lee’s elbow and started coordinating damage control, freeing Lee of Chip’s usual duty.  Lee spared a glance toward the Radio Shack and found Haskins ably manning that station. As Sparks plotted damage reports, and he and Lee assigned DC teams to fix anything the duty station personnel themselves couldn’t handle, Lee spared a glance at Doc, which Will happened to catch.


“Got his bell rung,” Will told him.  “Doesn't appear to be anything more serious.”  As Lee accepted that good news with a nod, Haskins reported FS1 was requesting permission to dock.  Lee hit the button to open Seaview’s lower hatch just as a frantic call came from Sharkey.


“Medic to the Missile Room - Stat!”


“He’s been watching too many medical shows,” Will grumbled.  Lee gave him as good a smile as he could muster under the circumstances.  “Get him,” Will pointed to James, “down to Sick Bay.  Gently,” he added firmly, picked up his bag, and headed aft.  Lee grabbed a blanket from the forward storage locker, had the corners knotted, and was just rolling Chris onto it when Nelson popped out of FS1’s upper hatch, followed immediately by Riley.


One of the off-duty seamen who had come forward to help out when all hell broke loose grabbed one end of the blanket and called for Riley to grab the other.  Nelson had walked immediately to the chart table and was running through Sparks’ notes when Lee joined him.


“All in all, it could have been a lot worse,” was Nelson’s instant appraisal.


“Bad enough,” Lee muttered.  While he finally had time to appreciate his extremely well trained and organized crew, he was beginning to feel a little useless.  He figured that it was the odd expression that thought probably put on his face that caused Nelson to look at him directly.


“Lee?  Are you okay?”


Lee smiled, although he had a feeling that it came off more as a grimace.  “I’m fine.”  His smile increased as Nelson frowned at the old, all too familiar line.  “Really,” he added with as much honesty as he could express in the single word.


“Harrumph,” was Nelson's response.  “Where’s Chip?”


Lee shrugged.  “The teams were just coming in when whatever happened...ah...happened.  Figured that he got sidetracked somewhere between there and here.”  He looked at Sparks.


“He hasn’t called in,” the radioman responded instantly.  “Doesn't necessarily mean anything...”  He let the thought trail off as both Nelson and Lee nodded.


“Skipper, I’m getting that same sound again,” Rawn reported into the sudden silence.


“All divers back in?” Lee asked Sparks, who nodded as he was taking another DC report.


“Helmsman, full reverse,” Lee ordered.


“Full reverse, aye,” came instantly, and Lee immediately felt the giant submarine start to move.  Sparks double-clicked the mic at the same time.


“All hands, brace for turbulence,” he ordered firmly.


The warning came none too soon.  They’d barely gotten a hundred yards when more turbulence - thankfully much smaller this time - again rocked Seaview.  She didn’t totally roll, but was still rocked side to side several times before trim could be re-established.  Thankfully there were no more reports of damage as Sparks ran through all the departments.


Nelson headed down to the Reactor Room, just to make sure that he wasn’t needed there before heading to his lab with the computer printouts from the original ‘whatever it was.’  Lee was just settling Seaview a thousand yards from the impact point when Lt. Keeter showed up, asking where he could help.  Lee was just about to give Sparks the Conn and leave he and Keeter to handle things there while he went off to make a walkthrough of the boat, checking on everything else for himself, when Doc’s voice came over the intercom, asking if he had time to come to Sick Bay.


“Now what?” he muttered, and didn’t realize that he’d done it out loud until both Keeter and Sparks looked at him, grinning.  He returned the grin rather sheepishly and headed aft.

Expecting to be told that he’d be without Lt. James’ services for the next few days, Lee was totally unprepared to find his XO lying on the exam table.  “Chip,” he barely breathed.


“Easy Skipper.”  Will looked over from reading an x-ray.


“Why didn’t Sharkey say it was Chip?” Lee all but yelled.


“For the same reason I didn’t,” Will answered calmly.  “You had too many things on your plate already to worry about.  You didn’t need to hear this until things were a good deal more under control.”  Lee just glared at him, but Will smiled and continued.  “Fortunately our esteemed Exec has an even harder head than his CO.”  Lee’s glare increased, but so did Will’s grin.  “Chip’s was the last team to arrive back from the dive, and he wasn’t in the hatch yet when Seaview flip-flopped.  Henderson was able to get one hand on the ladder rung inside the hatch and grab Chip with the other, but neither could prevent Chip’s head and arm clanging against the outer hull.  His skull’s intact, but his left forearm is broken in two places.”


“Ouch.”  Lee had walked up to the exam table while Will was explaining, and laid a hand on Chip’s shoulder.


“You won’t be getting him back for awhile. Probably not until after we get home.”


“How many others, besides Chris?”  Lee had spotted the lieutenant tucked into a lower bunk.


“Well, although I’ve managed to go through most of the extra tape and ace bandages that the Admiral brought the other day...”  Lee gave him a sympathetic look.  “The damages are about the same.  With the exception of these two,” he amended.  “Maybe a few more pulled muscles than the first time, but I have a good supply of liniment.  Don’t suppose we could just leave and come back another time?”


“Before the Admiral figures out what caused it?”


“Yeah, I know.  Stupid question.”  Lee grinned at the doctor.  Nelson absolutely hated puzzles.  “Guess I'd better start cutting up a few more sheets.”


“At least you don’t have to worry about running out of duct tape.  There’s two full cases in the aft storage locker.”


“One and a half,” Will grumbled.  “Went through the rest the first time around.”  Lee just shook his head.


Will gave him a speculative look.  “Skipper?” he asked gently.


Lee just smiled.  “No new damage, Jamie.  Promise.”


“You better not be saying that just because of all the threats I’ve made about not wanting the two of you in my Sick Bay at the same time.”  Lee just grinned at him.


But before either could say anything further, Nelson came on the intercom.  “Capt. Crane, report to the lab when you can.”


Lee grabbed the mic.  “On my way, sir.”  But he took another look at Chip.


“He’ll be fine,” Will assured him.  “A whopper of a headache for a few days.  And he’ll have to be on pain meds for that arm.  It’s a little ugly, but clean.  Should heal with minimal problems beyond some physiotherapy to get his strength back.”


“Thanks, Jamie.”  They both knew that it was just Lee’s way of acknowledging having someone of Will’s talent and skill aboard, without actually saying something that would merely embarrass them both.


“You're welcome.  Now go help the Admiral figure out how to keep it from happening again,” Will ordered sternly.


Lee laughed.  “Aye, aye, sir,” he said.  Almost but not quite squaring up to ‘Attention’ he added a backhanded salute, and slipped out the door before Will could find anything to throw at him.


Nelson was understandably upset at the injury report Lee gave him, but they were both grateful that it hadn’t been any worse.  While running quickly through the computer printouts, Nelson had formulated a theory about what had been happening on the ocean bottom.  He wouldn’t be able to prove it until the visibility in the area improved, but what he surmised had happened was, an extremely large thermal pocket had started building up pressure.  At intervals, around the edges, small areas would break through, causing the initial disturbances that had been mistakenly reported as underground earthquakes.  As Seaview had sat, unknowingly, directly over the main pocket of pressure it had suddenly broken through the crust, sending everything in its wake flying.  Nelson expected, once that they could get back into the area, to find a large hole where this morning there had been level ocean bottom.


Lee just nodded.  Nelson’s theory made as much sense as anything else he could think of.  He’d actually only been listening with half an ear as he was already trying to revise the duty rosters in his head to cover the loss of both Chip and Chris.


Nelson knew his Captain only too well.  “Lee,” he now drew the younger man’s full attention.  “Lt. Bryson is perfectly qualified to help cover the Conn with you during the day, especially as we’ll need to stay around here until I can either confirm or deny my theory.  Keeter’s got Delta watch covered, and O’Brien can take over a couple hours earlier in the evening for awhile.  You will not,” and he strongly emphasized the negative, “neglect your own rest.  Especially not after yesterday’s little incident.”  Nelson’s stare was firm.


“Yes, sir,” Lee acknowledged, not quite meeting Nelson's gaze.


“I don’t suppose you’ve managed to eat lunch?” Nelson asked, a bit more softly.


“Cookie was making soup. I haven’t wanted to go near the Wardroom,” Lee admitted, giving Nelson a little grin.


“Humm, you may have a point,” the Admiral agreed with a grin of his own.


“It was on my list of places to check on when Doc called me about Chip.  I’ll let you know if it looks safe for supper.”  Nelson just chuckled and shooed his young Captain off with a wave of his hand.


* * * *


2100 hours found Lee sitting next to Chip’s bunk in Sick Bay, a mug of strong coffee in his hand.  Chip still hadn’t regained consciousness, but Will wasn’t too worried about it.  He’d had to give the blond some pretty heavy-duty painkillers despite the head injury, to get him comfortably through having the arm set and cast.  Lee sipped on the coffee, quietly telling Chip everything that was going on whether or not his friend could hear him.  Despite Seaview’s loop-de-loop, she’d actually survived the maneuver with less damage than she’d received in the earlier incident.  Lee chalked it up to the crew taking note of the earlier problems, and trying to strengthen those areas as they repaired them.  He ran through the revised Duty Roster, which Lee had ended up not having much to do about putting together as Sparks and Keeter pretty much already had it done when he returned to the Conn.


A belated lunch of cold sandwiches and several varieties of packaged chips kept everyone going while Cookie and Higgins, with a little help from a couple of other brave souls who volunteered to ignore Cookie’s ranting, got the galley back in order.  The soup the chef had been making was a total loss, not to mention the mess it made.  But a supper of lasagna was on time.  There were even a few jokes about the ‘tossed’ salad that accompanied it, that the temperamental chef was able to chuckle at.


A hand on his shoulder, and another settling over the coffee mug, disturbed Lee’s one-sided conversation.  “Enough for now, Skipper,” Will told him firmly.  “By the time you walk through the boat one more time it will be getting on to your bedtime.”


Normally Lee would have just shrugged off the suggestion.  But something in the way that Will looked at him had him nodding a reluctant agreement.  He did maintain control of the mug long enough to polish off its contents before handing it to the now frowning doctor.  But they both ended up with a smile on their faces.  Lee reached out long enough to give Chip’s shoulder a squeeze, tell him good night, and head for his normal evening ‘walkaboat’.


Unfortunately, even with all the day’s excitement, Lee had slept barely two hours when his eyes popped open.  He’d startled so rapidly that he heard himself mutter a soft “no” before he recognized where he was, and sank back against the pillow.  But too many nights of hopelessly battling the disturbing visions left him knowing that it would be useless to try and go back to sleep.  There was enough paperwork, both his and Chip’s that he’d automatically taken over, to get him through the rest of the night.  Grabbing his robe he once again stuffed a towel against the door, just in case anyone should walk by and spot his light, and settled into his desk chair to tackle the mound of reports.


By 0530 he’d whittled the stack down to a manageable size.  He showered, shaved, and dressed, and was just passing the Admiral’s cabin on the way to the Conn when it opened abruptly.  They both gave their watches a glance, and then gave each other a slightly sheepish grin at the early hour.  But nothing was said as Nelson headed for his lab and Lee continued on to the Conn.


As usual, even with the past bit of craziness, Delta watch had everything running smoothly.  Lee ran over the current status report with Keeter, told him that he’d just grab a quick breakfast, check Sick Bay, and be right back.  Keeter grinned and told him to take his time, and Lee nodded his thanks.  He stopped for a quick word at all the Duty stations, and then headed aft.


His first glimpse of Chip as he stepped through the door into Sick Bay wasn’t reassuring, and he hurried across the short space to where his friend lay softly tossing his head back and forth as if he was having a bad dream.  There was a slight sheen of sweat on his face, signifying that somewhere along the line he’d developed a fever.  Lee didn’t hear Doc walk up behind him until a hand fell on his shoulder. 


“Easy, Skipper.”  Will knew that Lee would be upset.  He, on the other hand, was all too used to Seaview’s XO having strange reactions to otherwise routine procedures.


“But…” Lee started in.


“Chill,” Will told him firmly, and chuckled softly as Lee frowned.  “Yes, Chip developed a bit of a fever.  Nothing to get excited about.”


“He’s still unconscious,” Lee complained.


“Sort of,” Will agreed with a grin, which only increased Lee’s frown.  To which Will laughed openly.  “He’s been awake several times,” he assured his now slightly ticked off CO.  “But as I warned you, the arm is extremely painful right now.  There were no major neurological problems from the bump on his head when he was conscious so I increased the pain meds.  Another day or so and the fever should subside, as well as a good deal of the pain.  Not that he’ll be leaving here any time soon,” he hurried to add.


That caused a slight grin to appear on Lee’s face.  “They’re your eardrums,” he told the doctor.


“And I’d appreciate a little help from you keeping them in working order,” Will told him firmly.


“Do what I can,” Lee assured him, but the worry was plain on his face as he looked back at the still restless blond.


“Tell you what, Skipper.  Come back about lunchtime, and with a little luck you can coax him to eat some soup.”


“Ah, after yesterday, I wouldn’t mention that word around Cookie if I were you,” Lee told him with another grin.


“Not a problem.  I keep some canned stuff in my office for midnight snacks during times of severe stress.  On Cookie’s part, not mine,” he amended, and both men smiled.


“Chris?” Lee asked, nodding across the room to where the young lieutenant laid snuggly wrapped in blankets.


“Doing fine.  I’ll want to keep an eye on him for today at least.  Another couple of days confined to quarters, with maybe a bit of ambling around for meals, and he should be ready for light duty again.”  Lee nodded, reached out a hand, and laid it on Chip’s shoulder.  He didn’t say anything, but the blond momentarily settled quietly against the pillow.  Lee hesitated, but reluctantly headed for a quick breakfast.


Will just grinned as Lee walked out.  He checked his patients, and rested his own hand on Chip’s shoulder for a bit.  It didn’t have the same effect as Lee’s doing it, and Chip kept up his restlessness.  Will just shook his head.  He wasn’t sure what the connection was between the two long-time friends.  But he’d watched it happen too many times to discount it – no matter how injured one was, the other was able to reach through the pain and the meds, and ‘speak’ to him.  He gave it a shot, anyway.  “Chip, easy,” he told the blond reassuringly.  “You’re safe, your boat is safe.”  He shrugged.  “For the moment, at least,” he added with a grimace.  A thought hit him.  “And your Skipper is safe.  The best thing that you can do is rest and heal.  You know that he’ll be watched, even if you’re not able to do it yourself.”  For whatever reason, at that last Chip stopped his restless turning and at least momentarily lay quiet.  Will just shook his head, gave the XO’s shoulder a little squeeze, and headed back to his office.


* * * *


Doc’s timetable ended up being a little off.  Lee spent the morning in the Conn.  There wasn’t much to do but he was hesitant to leave Bryson there by himself, simply because the lieutenant was still fairly new aboard and didn’t have a lot of Conn experience.  His specialty was in electrical engineering and he was doing an excellent job, while occasionally serving as second to O’Brien and Keeter on their watches.  Both Lee and Chip had a good feeling for his continued service to Seaview.  He just lacked ‘seasoning.’  Lee eventually, after prowling for the third time around the different duty stations and getting the same response of “nothing new,” went up to his cabin and brought down the rest of the reports that he hadn’t finished during the night.  He sat in the Nose working on them, ready to answer any questions that might come up.  Even though Seaview was basically just station keeping he took a certain amount of pleasure in listing Bryson as the Watch Officer of record, and nodded his encouragement as the young man handled the odds and ends that even a quiet boat could toss at him.


Just before 1200 hours Haskins entered the Conn and relieved Sparks at the Radio Shack.  Sparks then came forward and waited patiently for Lee to notice him, standing quietly just forward of the chart table.  Lee sent him a raised eyebrow.  “By your leave, sir.  Ready to take the Conn so that Lt. Bryson can get lunch.”  Lee knew the unspoken rest of the statement – that Lee could feel free to leave as well.  He shook his head softly for just a second, closed the report he was working on, and stood up.


“Sound good to you, Bryson?” he asked, with a grin in his voice.


“Aye, sir,” was the instant answer.  He hadn’t been totally prepared for the reassignment of duties.  He was grateful that Cdr. Crane had remained close by, but his nerves were in desperate need of the break.  Even if he wasn’t about to admit it.


“Then turn the command over, and let’s go see what Cookie’s got for us,” was Lee’s easy response.


“Aye, sir.”  Lee held in the smile that threatened to break through at the relief in Bryson’s voice, and the two headed aft.


Lee’s first stop however was Sick Bay.  Chip was no longer restless, and the sheen of sweat was gone.  But there was no response when Lee touched his shoulder.


“Sorry, Skipper.”  Will’s voice came from his office door, and Lee turned to face him.  “Chip was awake for a bit about 1000 hours.  I was going to call you, but by the time Frank and I got him a bit more comfortable…”  Lee nodded.  He’d been through the routine often enough.  Unfortunately.  Chip would have been given a quick bed bath to get rid of the fever-sweat, and the sheets and pjs changed as well.  “He was already sound asleep again,” Will finished the explanation.


“It’s okay.  Even I can see that he’s a bit better.”


“Hey, Doc,” came from Chris James’ bunk, and Lee sent him a smile,  “Isn’t it about time to let me out of here?”


“No, it’s not,” Will told the young man.  He sent Lee a glare as Lee chuckled softly.  “While I’ll be the first to admit that emulating our esteemed CO isn’t a bad thing in most cases, adopting his attitudes toward health care is most decidedly not a good way to advance your career.  Especially around me! Do I make myself clear?”  Chris settled meekly back against his pillow, but not before he and Lee shared a smile.


Will practically growled.  “Bad enough that I have to put up with you two,” he included a nod toward Chip.  “Do you have to corrupt the JO’s as well?”  Lee just shrugged and gave his CMO a little grin.  “Out,” Will ordered firmly, but relented slightly as he added, “hopefully Chip will cooperate with the schedule a little better at suppertime.”  Lee nodded and headed for the Wardroom.


He was met there by Nelson, and the two spent the time it took to down Cookie’s grilled cheese sandwiches and potato salad hashing over plans for the next several days.  Nelson had spent the morning analyzing the water and seabed samples that the divers had collected the previous day, along with those he had gotten using FS1.  So far there was nothing to counter his working theory.  The continuing murkiness of the water, as well as a rise in ambient water temperature, continued to point to an opened thermal vent.  Nelson wanted to send FS1 out to make a run through the epicenter of the area, where Seaview had been sitting when everything happened, to see if there were any signs of gasses still being released.  Lee was hesitant to allow the survey, at least for another 24 hours.  Visibility was still so low that the little craft would be running totally on instruments, and while collections could determine if the vent was still active, he didn’t see the necessity of risking her when it wouldn’t hurt anything to just sit back and continue to watch for a while.


Nelson smiled at Lee’s choice of words.  Doing what he wanted, anytime he wanted, and preferably the sooner the better, pretty much described Nelson’s attitude toward life.  He didn’t always appreciate Lee’s occasionally putting the brakes on his plans.  But he did acknowledge that Lee had all too frequently saved Nelson and Seaview from making what could have been grave mistakes by slowing down or slightly sidetracking a certain rampaging Admiral.  Now he surrendered graciously.  He did ask that Lee send him the hydrophone tapes from the last dozen or so hours.  He was hoping that, by comparison, he might be able to “hear” what was happening in the affected area.


Lee used that as an excuse, once he’d quickly downed what little lunch he wanted, to return to the Conn.  Eating a bit more slowly, Nelson saw the frown Cookie sent toward Lee’s back.  He was about to say something to the oft put-upon chef when he was distracted by Will’s arrival.  The doctor made Nelson chuckle when he related the last part of Lee’s recent visit to Sick Bay.  Nelson raised an eyebrow, however, and Will told him that both James and Chip were mending as well as could be expected. Will did let out a particularly heavy sigh at the end of the explanation.  Nelson had heard that sound before and had a pretty good idea of what – or rather who – was responsible for it.  “What’s Lee done now,” he asked softly.


Will shook his head, and swallowed half of his coffee before answering.  “You know that he’s still not sleeping?”


Nelson nodded.  “Happened to be coming back from the lab about 0200 this morning when I noticed his cabin light flick on.  I waited for just a bit, hoping that it would go back off.”  He frowned.  “It did, sort of, but not like Lee turned it off.  More like he’d tossed something down by the crack so the light wouldn’t show.”


“You didn’t call him on it?”


“Didn’t seem like the time.  You’d just enforced a good long rest, and with Chip down…”  Nelson just shrugged.  “How did you figure it out?”


“Too much practice at watching him push himself.”  Nelson nodded.  “We both have watched him, all too frequently, survive on little or no sleep for long periods of time.  Doesn’t mean that I have to like it,” he grumbled.  Nelson sent his friend a smile.  “Still no idea of what’s causing it?” Will continued a bit more under control.


“Best guess is, something happened during the ONI mission to throw him off kilter.  But you know him – unless he chooses to say something, there’s no way to force him to tell us.”


“There’s a couple ways I could think of,” Will muttered into his once-again full coffee cup, causing Nelson to laugh out loud.


“Now, now, Will,” he told his frustrated CMO.


“And who was it who came unhinged at Lee’s little side trip to Chile not all that long ago?”**


“Harrumph,” Nelson muttered into his own coffee mug.  Both men ended up grimacing.  “Just Lee being Lee,” Nelson acquiesced to the inevitable.  “If we want him for his multitude of talents – and we do,” he stated emphatically, “I guess we just put up with the quirks.”


“Agreed,” Will admitted, however reluctantly.  They gave each other a soft grin, and went on to other topics.


* * * *


By the following afternoon visibility had cleared enough that Lee deemed it safe to send out FS1.  Nelson piloted the little craft, with Chief Sharkey riding shotgun.  Lee reported their unfortunate lack of success to Chip that night over supper.


Chris James had been released to his cabin, with threats of dire consequences from Will if he didn’t behave himself and stay away from the Control Room for at least the next 48 hours.  Chip had continued to improve, and was increasingly more alert when Lee checked in on him.  Tonight, as he worked on what he disgustingly referred to as “invalid food” – an omelet and dry toast – he asked what the next day’s plan was.


“Not sure,” Lee admitted.  “The Admiral still wants to hang around until we can get a good fix on how the ocean bottom came through the eruption – or whatever it was.  There’s been no indication of further problems so he’s pretty sure that the last blast alleviated the pressure.  But until visibility improves, there’s not much we can do except hang around.”  He grinned.  “On the bright side, Bryson is getting a lot of good Conn experience.”


“At my expense,” Chip grumbled, and stuffed the last of the omelet in his mouth.


Lee laughed.  “Better yours than mine, for a change,” he teased his friend.  Chip just glared at him.  He also yawned heavily, and transferred his glare to the IV Will wouldn’t get rid of – no matter how Chip threatened him.  He said the same to Lee.  “See what you’ve done?” he accused Lee.  “You’ve given him so much practice he just laughs now at my best arguments.”


“Made that discovery myself the last time I was stuck in here.”  It was Lee’s turn to grumble.  “We just have to get sneakier.”


“I heard that,” came from Will’s office, startling both younger men.


“Thought you were at dinner,” Lee tossed toward the door.


Will came to stand casually in the doorway.  “And leave you two unsupervised to plot havoc?  Not likely.”  He just smiled at the instant twin glares he received, and went back into his office.


“Just once…” Chip said softly.  Lee nodded, but they both instantly grinned.  Lee’s broadened when Chip’s ended in another yawn.


“Crash time for you, buddy,” Lee said, gathering up the now empty dishes.  He’d dined on two pork loin chops smothered in sauerkraut, with creamed corn and apple slices.  Now they were both hoping that Doc hadn’t seen how many bites of the second chop Lee had snuck to Chip.


“Don’t bother showing up for breakfast unless you bring me real food,” Chip muttered.  There was a chuckle from Doc’s office.  Lee just grinned, nodded, and left.


Will waited a ten-count before again appearing in his doorway.  He was hoping that Chip had closed his eyes, but wasn’t surprised to find twin blue lasers directed at him.  “Chill, Chip,” he said easily, and wandered over.  “You know perfectly well that you’d do Lee no good, trying to go back on duty too soon.  He’d be more worried about you than he already is.”


Chip nodded reluctantly.  “He just seems so tired every time he comes in.”  Chip frowned.  “Or else, I’m just so messed up it seems that way.”


Will chuckled and sat down in the chair Lee had just vacated.  “How much of his dinner did he actually eat?”


Chip gave him a sheepish look.  “Actually, all but about half of the second chop.”


“Enjoy the other half?” Will asked with a grin.  Chip didn’t answer, and Will laughed openly.  “Back to your normal diet tomorrow.  I just didn’t want to hit your system too soon after the heavy duty meds I’ve been giving you.”


“Doc…” Chip started.


“Don’t,” Will cut him off with a glare.  “Without them the pain would have been unbearable.  By now the nerves have had a chance to settle down a bit from the trauma of break plus surgery to repair the damage, and I can start weaning you off the meds.  But gradually,” he added.  “You’re not indestructible, you know.”  He chuckled as a thought hit him.  “I need you as an example for when the Skipper starts thinking he is.”  Chip had the good graces to smile sheepishly, remembering all of the times that he’d blustered that line to Lee.  He lay quietly and let Doc check him over, and didn’t fuss – too much, at least – when Doc adjusted the flow on the IV.


* * * *


Two more days of basically doing nothing – and two more nights of not sleeping longer than a couple of hours – and Lee was ready for Nelson’s decision that visibility had cleared enough to safely move Seaview back into the epicenter of the disturbance.  There had been no more eruptions, and no evidence of further leaks of hot air.  Ambient water temperatures were gradually returning to more normal levels.  Nelson wanted divers to put out sensors that would continue to monitor that area, and send telemetry to a collection unit Nelson had placed the previous afternoon outside the area of disturbance.


Lee let Bryson give the commands to maneuver Seaview into position, but stayed right next to him as he could see that the young lieutenant was nervous.  While Bryson was familiar with the mechanics of moving the giant submarine, this was the first time that he’d actually given the orders himself.  But Lee was happy at how well he handled the commands – and the boat – which he indicated by not interfering.  He also gave a nod of approval as Seaview returned precisely to the site of her earlier ‘dance.’


Lee would have preferred to wander down to the Missile Room and quietly supervise the dives.  Doc had finally relented the day before and let Lee get rid of the light brace on his wrist.  But just on the off-chance that all, or even part, of Nelson’s calculations were incorrect, Lee stayed in the Conn.  He made sure that Patterson was on hydrophones and Kowalski on Sonar.  He wanted his best, most experienced men at those two critical positions in case decisions had to be made on a moment’s notice.


But all went well.  Visibility had cleared to the point that even from the Nose they could get a fairly clear look at the epicenter.  The divers had an easy time setting their units.  They also brought back more samples for the Admiral before Seaview moved out of the site.


By the next morning Chris James was allowed back on light duty.  Bryson stayed as his second, but Lee was a little freer to move around the boat, at least during the morning hours.  Seaview began a sweep through the areas they had already mapped, to note any changes that the major blast might have caused.  But it was a fairly cursory look as it was apparent that ‘the big one’, as Nelson was referring to it, had gone straight up.  The mounds around the epicenter had grown proportionately, but that was about all.  There was a bit of consternation when one of the telemetry units reported a blip.  But several hours of Seaview sitting just outside the blast zone showed merely that every once in awhile a small bubble was released from the very center.  Nelson was greatly relieved, as this was his confirmation that the area wasn’t likely to again build up enough pressure at one time to be a hazard.  He told Lee that it was time to head for home, and Lee was only too happy to give the orders.


The only downside to the day was that Chip had had a minor setback.  Despite the fact that everyone knew better, Seaview’s XO had been left unattended just long enough that he’d attempted an escape.  He didn’t get far.  On returning from a quick trip to the supply locker aft, Frank found him clinging to the edge of the exam table.  Chip had only gotten that far before getting dizzy and nearly passing out.  Will had read him the royal riot act before realizing that Chip was once again fighting a slight fever.  The detested IV, which Chip had only gotten rid of the evening before, was once again set up, feeding him a more steady supply of antibiotics than just a couple of pills every few hours could manage.


Lee hadn’t heard any of this until he came down with Chip’s dinner, which Chip wasn’t up to eating – a sure sign that the XO was feeling lousy.  Lee had been miffed that Will hadn’t called him, but calmed down when Will reminded him that, because Chris was still on light duty, Lee had been pretty much tied to the Conn all afternoon.


Even Chip noticed how ungracefully Lee settled into the chair by his bunk, and raised an eyebrow as best he could.  Lee just waved off the question.  “Been a long few days,” was his noncommittal response.  Unfortunately Chip wasn’t feeling well enough to challenge it.


Not so Will.  A critical eye took careful measure of the younger man, albeit from the safety of his office door.  Not liking his diagnosis, but knowing that a frontal attack might not be the best tactic, he decided once again to come at the man a little sideways.  He poured out about three-fourths of a mug of coffee from the little pot he kept going in his office, which wasn’t nearly as potent as what Cookie usually brewed.  He topped it off with the medicinal brandy he kept in his bottom drawer for emergencies and walked over to the two younger men, reaching down and exchanging Lee’s mug for the one he’d brought. 


Lee, in the midst of trying to eat the small bit of dinner he’d thought he could manage just to keep Chip placated, gave him a curious look and raised the replacement coffee to his nose.  One whiff told him what Doc had done, but he just shook his head and tried to hand it back.  “Can’t, Jamie,” he said tiredly.  “Not with key personnel still sidelined.”


There were times when Will wanted to shake the young man until his brains rattled.  But he tried to be patient.  “We’re headed home, Skipper.  Surely you can relax now.”


“Not that much,” Lee told him, with half a smile.  Will surrendered to the inevitable, gave Lee back his mug, and sipped on the ‘doctored’ one himself as he returned to his office.


But as soon as John showed up to keep an eye on things, Will went in search of the Admiral.  Nelson was always his last resort when dealing with Lee.  Military life did have its advantages, and it wouldn’t be the first time that the two older men had had to pull rank on one or the other of the younger ones.  He tracked Nelson down in his lab, surrounded by test tubes, reports, and computer printouts.  The air was stale with cigarette smoke, and Will almost forgot what brought him there as he grabbed Nelson’s overflowing ashtray and went in search of some place safe to dump it.  When he returned, Nelson had turned up the air revitalizer and the place was almost habitable.  “Sorry, Will,” he mumbled, barely taking his eyes off of the report he was reading.


Will set the ashtray down with a decided thunk.  “Is Seaview in danger?” he asked disgustedly.




“Is there something in that report that’s so vitally necessary to world peace that you can’t come up long enough to eat?”  The ashtray alone told Will that Nelson probably hadn’t been out of the lab all day.


While the challenges would normally have just antagonized Nelson, he took note of the glint in Will’s eyes and surrendered.  Sort of.  “And to what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Doctor?” he asked with half a grin.


Will decided slapping an Admiral upside the head probably wouldn’t do much to advance his career.  But he was still sorely tempted.  Instead, he took a deep breath.  “Dinner,” he announced, and was almost surprised when Nelson came peacefully.


They didn’t say much until both were most of the way through eating.  “Care to start over?” Nelson asked.


Will snorted, but nodded nonetheless.  “I’m becoming seriously worried about Lee.”  He held up a hand to stop whatever Nelson was going to say.  “I know that this trip has been weird.  I know that we’ve discussed how he can usually go for long stretches with minimal sleep.  But something is wrong.  It’s not getting any better.  And if something isn’t done about it soon he’s going to break.  Maybe to the point that we can’t put him back together.”


“He has rough periods from time to time, Will.  You know that.  He always manages them just fine.  Well,” Nelson hedged, thinking back on a few of Lee’s more eclectic solutions to personal problems, “at least eventually.  With everything else that’s happened this cruise, he just hasn’t had the time to get whatever it is sorted out.  We’ll be home in four days.”


Will nodded.  “And I’ve been hoping and praying that he could hold out that long.  Then I can throw his tail off NIMR property long enough to let him get his head screwed back on securely.” 


Nelson grinned.  It was a standing joke that about the only time Lee would take a vacation was when Will threatened him with mayhem if he didn’t.  It was another standing joke that Lee rarely came back from one of these enforced vacations without some sort of injury, however minor.  The insults that tended to get traded back and forth between the two because of it were well worth the price of admission.  “I gather you’re no longer sure,” Nelson said now, once more getting serious.


But Will, now that he’d gotten the problem out into the open, was no longer so sure.  “I don’t know,” he backslid.  “I just know that I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite this…exhausted, for want of a better word.  He seems under control; not frustrated, or angry, or anything like that.  I’m just worried that he’s going to come to the end of the rubber band he’s been living on, and it’s going to snap.”  He snorted at himself.  “How’s that for a supposedly learned diagnosis,” he muttered.


“Sounded pretty accurate to me, “ Nelson told him.  “I gather you want me to talk to him.”


“What I want you to do, and what I have any right to ask you to do, are two very different things.  Trust me,” Will growled.


Nelson chuckled openly.  He so appreciated having Will around.  And not only for his medical skills.  On the other hand, I do sometimes wonder if his grumbling isn’t a calculated effort to alleviate someone else’s stress.  Humm… and he sent Will a thoughtful gaze.


“What?” Will continued to grumble.


Nelson just chuckled.  “Never mind.  Where is Lee now, do you know?”


“I left him in Sick Bay.  You know what happened with Chip this afternoon?”


Nelson nodded.  “Sharkey told me.  And it will interest you that you’re not the first person today to mention that Lee’s a bit…out of sync.”


“And?” Will pushed.


Nelson shrugged.  “Let’s just say that your arguments are a little more compelling.”


It was Will’s turn to chuckle.  Poor Sharkey.  If he only knew how people talked about him behind his back.  But Will was perfectly aware of how much of an asset he was to Seaview.  Just, sometimes, some of the crew tended to leave off the last two letters of that description.  “And?” he continued, however, to challenge Nelson.


“And,” Nelson sighed, “I’ll see what I can do.  Just don’t hold your breath,” he warned.


“Understood,” Will agreed.


* * * *


Circumstances prevented Nelson from tracking Lee down at that point.  He went from the Wardroom back to his lab.  Normally unaware of his own cigarette smoke, and maybe this time because Will had made such a point of it, Nelson blinked at the faint blue haze that still hung in the room and did a more thorough job of cleaning up.  Next he had Sharkey track down Lee’s present whereabouts.  But when he discovered that Lee and several of the JO’s were in the middle of a discussion in the Wardroom over how the recent emergencies had been handled, and if there were ways that specific problems could have been dealt with differently, he decided not to interrupt Lee’s obviously impromptu training session.  If nothing else, maybe Cookie could entice Lee to augment his recent scanty meals with a few handfuls of munchies of some sort.  Then he got a call from Admiral Jiggs Stark that put him in a perfectly rotten mood of his own.  By the time he’d calmed down, Lee had already crashed for the night.


But remembering a few nights previous, Nelson stayed up and periodically checked on any sign of lights underneath Lee’s door.  Once again, just shortly after midnight, they popped on.  This time, however, they very clearly popped back off within just a few minutes.  His plan to catch Lee in the act, so to speak, foiled, he went off to his own bunk.


He couldn’t know that, with all his reports caught up, Lee didn’t have anything to work on and merely made a quick trip to the head before settling into his oversized desk chair.  He’d discovered that, sometimes at least, he could sleep there even if he couldn’t in bed.  Fortunately, tonight proved to be one of those nights.  Unfortunately, his exhausted state got the better of him and he didn’t wake up until nearly 0700 – to find Admiral Nelson relaxing almost contentedly in the chair alongside the desk.  He was sure that he must have jumped at least a foot, but Nelson merely smiled indulgently.


“Can’t think that was the most restful night of sleep you’ve ever gotten,” Nelson offered amiably, and then shrugged.  “But at least it was sleep.”


Still a bit unnerved, Lee settled for a simple, “Yes, sir,” not quite meeting Nelson’s gaze.


Nelson chuckled.  There were times when Seaview’s extremely competent, strong-willed, occasionally temperamental Captain acted more like a twelve-year-old.  And Nelson valued him all the more for his very human character traits.  “Something wrong with your bunk?” he now asked.  “Need a new mattress?  That one getting lumpy?  Can’t imagine how – you spend so few hours in it.”


Lee had been slowly shaking his head, but with that last came a return of the more adult Lee Crane.  “Jamie put you up to this?” he demanded, before realizing how the grumble had come out, and once more slightly lowering his eyes.


Nelson nodded easily.  “And Sharkey, and Chip, and Sparks.  And there was muttering in the crew’s quarters the other night as I passed by.”  So, some of that was a little fib, but only to the point that he hadn’t actually heard it – Sharkey had been a bit enthusiastic when trying to explain that it wasn’t just him who was worried.


Lee was frowning – not a good sign.  “I’m fine.  The bunk’s fine.  Just…”  He didn’t continue.


Nelson raised an eyebrow.  “Yes?” he encouraged Lee.


“Nothing.  Sir,” he added almost as an afterthought.  Nelson refused to be goaded.  Nothing was sure to make Lee clam up even worse than he already was.  “If you will excuse me, sir, I’d better get to the Conn.


“Somehow I think that Seaview could find her way home all by herself.”  Nelson was hoping that Lee would take the hint and surrender.  He should have known better.


“Need to check on Chip.  And Chris still isn’t back on full duty.  Can’t expect Bob and Keeter to cover everything else.”


Nelson just nodded.  He knew when he was licked.  And he knew that Lee recognized the surrender when he rose with only a moment’s hesitation and headed for his shower.  Nelson sighed, got up, and headed to the Wardroom to admit his defeat to Will.


Lee was not overly proud of himself.  He was only too aware that he was acting abnormally – even for him.  He knew that it was causing worry in those around him, and worry because they cared about him.  But he was still convinced that it would all straighten out in time.  It always had before.  He’d actually gotten almost a normal night’s worth of sleep for a change.  Seaview would be home in a few days, and not scheduled out for almost three weeks.  Chip’s sister was all set to come pick him up, to recuperate under her occasionally not so gentle ministrations – she was perfectly capable of ‘handling’ her big brother.  It would leave Lee with a few extra things to do in Chip’s absence.  But he was thinking that this might be a good time to train Lt. James in a few of Chip’s shore duties.  If nothing else it would give Lee more ammunition to fire the next time Chip smarted off, and Lee threatened to replace him by promoting Chris to Seaview’s XO position.


That thought putting a slight smile on his face he hurried through his morning ablutions, checked in briefly in the Conn, grabbed a cup of coffee in the Wardroom while promising a frowning Cookie to return shortly for breakfast, and then headed for Sick Bay.


He didn’t make it back to either the Wardroom or the Conn.  Just as he walked in Sick Bay’s door Chip gave a yell and nearly flattened the struggling corpsman, John, trying without success to settle him down from what was apparently the throes of a fever-induced delirium.  Lee entered the battle just in time to take a solid blow to the side of his head from the very sturdy cast on Chip’s forearm.  The pain that it obviously caused Chip seemed to knock him out of the delirium – or at least once more unconscious – and John was finally able to get him to settle back into the bunk.


Unfortunately, it also left Lee quite stunned, and he wasn’t able to resist someone – who turned out to be Jamie – maneuvering him across the room and into a bunk.  He tried to push the doctor aside to see Chip, but Will held him easily.  “Chip’s fine,” Will assured him.  “At least, he will be.”


“What happened?” Lee demanded, still struggling despite the fact that he was seeing double of everything.


“You of all people know how Chip sometimes has weird reactions to drugs.”  He sighed.  “Just another one that I need to add to the ever-growing list of ‘Do not give to Lt. Cdr. Morton under any circumstances.’  Now lay still and let me see what he did to you.”


“I’m fine,” came out automatically, followed by a yell of pain as Will’s fingers found the quickly expanding knot on the side of Lee’s head.


“Sorry,” Will said, but Lee didn’t think that he sounded like he meant it.


“I need to get to the Conn,” was Lee’s next demand.


“Not until you’re only seeing one of me.”  Lee tried a glare.  “And I know that, because you keep trying to stare in two places at the same time.”


Lee tried a different tactic.  “You always say that you don’t want more than one of the Command staff in your Sick Bay at the same time.”


Will almost smiled but knew if he did, all would no doubt be lost.  “Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean that I won’t do it when necessary.”  He cut off whatever Lee was about to say with a snort.  “Don’t even start, Commander.  I am really not in the mood.  I’ll let you leave when all the little tweetie birds stop flying around your head.”  At Lee’s attempt at a ferocious expression for that comment Will finally smiled, although not before he had turned and walked away so that Lee couldn’t see it.


Lee laid back and closed his eyes.  His head really did hurt like the blazes.  He tried once more to see over to Chip, couldn’t figure out which of two – or maybe three – bunks Chip was in, and surrendered to the inevitable.  But boy, was he going to have a thing or two to say to Chip when this was all over!


Will interrupted his plans for revenge by returning with a glass of water and a couple of pills.  At first Lee just tried to push the doctor’s hands away.  But a loud clearing of the doctor’s throat reminded Lee that now might not be the best time to tick Jamie off any further than he obviously already was.  Well, Lee wasn’t so stupid – or in so much pain – that he didn’t realize most of Jamie’s irritation stemmed from worry that Chip had once again slowed down his recovery because of a strange drug reaction.  And even as blurry as his vision was at the moment, Lee recognized the brown pills Jamie held out as being nothing more than ibuprofen.  Although he couldn’t for sure tell how many of them there were.  Lee still took them grudgingly, just on general principles.  He also fussed, without success, when Jamie removed his shoes, loosened the waistband of his uniform slacks, and undid the top few buttons of his shirt.  A light blanket laid over him seemed, however, to complete Jamie’s prescription, and he headed for his office.  One more failed attempt to look across the room and figure out for sure in which of two bunks his friend was actually laying in and, with a disgusted sigh, he again closed his eyes.


* * * *


Nelson stuck his head through Will’s office door.  “Chip didn’t?” he asked incredulously.  Will just smiled broadly up at him from his desk chair, and Nelson walked the rest of the way in.   Will poured him a cup of coffee and handed it across the desk as Nelson took the visitor’s chair.  “Chip?”


“Is once more responding, after a quick change of meds.  They’re both sleeping off the results.”


Nelson took a peek through the door into Sick Bay proper.  “Sleeping?”


Will’s grin spread.  “And not with any help from me.  The pain Chip caused himself when he clobbered Lee pretty much sent him back under.  And the knot on the side of Lee’s head, what with his already sleep-deprived state, is having much the same effect.”


“Chip do any more damage to his arm?”


Will shook his head.  “One of the things I’m especially good at is making durable casts.”  He chuckled softly.  “Of course, it might also have something to do with the fact that I taped several light metal plates to the outside of his arm over the breaks before I put the cast on,” he admitted.  “Not the first time I’ve had to cast one of our slightly over-enthusiastic XO’s limbs.”  He chuckled along with Nelson.


The Admiral quickly polished off the coffee.  “Guess I’d better go take a turn in the Conn.


“Know any short-cuts home?” Will asked, still smiling.


Nelson chuckled.  “Perhaps one or two.  Had quite enough excitement for this trip?”  Will just snorted.  “You’re aware,” Nelson got a bit more serious, “that with Chip going to his sister’s as soon as we get back there’s almost no way Lee will accept being ordered to take some time off – by either of us.”


Will nodded.  “That thought had crossed my mind.  I’ll just have to hope that between last night and however long I can keep him down now, it will tide him over until we get home.  And that from there he’ll figure out a way to get past whatever it is that’s bothering him.  At least he won’t be trying to keep Seaview afloat at the same time.”  Nelson nodded his agreement to that, and left.


Will polished off his own coffee and ambled out to check on his patients.  Frank, he knew, wasn’t far away.  The senior corpsman was still feeling bad about having allowed Chip the opportunity to try and escape, no matter how much Will reminded him that it had just been a momentary oversight that, given anyone other than the senior officers, wouldn’t have mattered a bit.  He merely glanced at Lee, not wanting to do anything to disturb the always light-sleeping young man, and headed across to Chip.  He had his head down, taking the apparently sleeping blond’s pulse, when there was a breathed “Lee”, and Will looked up to see that Chip had spotted his friend across the room.


“Relax.  He’s just taking a little nap,” Will told him with a grin.  Chip sent him a look of total disbelief, and Will chuckled.  He pointed to the slight dent on the outside of Chip’s cast.  “I gather that you don’t remember cold-cocking him this morning?”


“Oh my gosh,” Chip barely breathed.  The hand Will ran over Chip’s forehead confirmed that the sudden flush across the blond’s face had nothing to do with a returning fever.


“Not to worry.  You can just explain that it was payback for his tossing you into his desk.”


Chip wasn’t amused.  “But…”


“Chip, chill!” Will ordered, but he was still speaking quietly, keeping his fingers crossed that Lee wouldn’t wake up.  He had no doubts that, whether or not Lee was still fighting a headache and double vision, he would immediately head for the Conn no matter how much Will ranted at him.  “Despite a rather spectacular goose egg on the side of his head, he’s actually not all that bad.  Now,” he made sure that he had Chip’s full attention before he continued, “if you do anything, whatsoever, that wakes him up, you can expect to be made extremely unhappy.  Do I make myself clear?”  Will punctuated every third word or so of that last with a stiff finger to Chip’s breastbone.


Chip took the not so subtle hint.  “Aye, sir,” he muttered.  He turned back toward Lee, but as Will continued to check him over, Chip’s eyes gradually closed once more.


Will couldn’t know, but Lee’s sleep wasn’t all that restful.  Shortly after Will had gotten Chip settled back down Lee awoke for the second time that day, startled to discover that he was being scrutinized.  Will had caught the slight head movements, and the softly muttered ‘somethings’ – the only word that he understood was “no”, uttered in such a hopeless manner that it hurt Will to hear it.  He pulled a chair over to the foot of Lee’s bunk, always mindful that awakening a restless Lee could be hazardous to the person doing it.  As he rested a hand lightly on one of Lee’s blanket-covered legs, Lee’s eyes suddenly popped open and he tried to sit up.  He was only partially successful, as the pain in his head from the too quick movement had him closing his eyes against the bright lights.  Will immediately moved to dim them before returning and pulling the chair closer to the head of the bunk.  As Lee would have again tried to sit up, Will ever so gently placed a restraining hand on Lee’s shoulder.  “Easy, Skipper.  It’s okay.  Just a dream,” he droned softly, hoping that just maybe he could get Lee to go back to sleep.


He should have known better.  But he was very surprised when Lee seemed to respond to the doctor’s quiet suggestion.  Lee lay back, turning so that he could see across the room.  “How many Chips are you seeing?” Will asked gently.  He was surprised further when Lee gave him an almost equally whimsical reply.


“Down to about one and a half,” Lee told him, but didn’t take his eyes off Chip.


“He’s fine,” Will told him.  “Bashing you seemed to knock the fever the rest of the way out of him.”  If Lee wanted to be a bit silly, Will was perfectly happy going along with it.  “Changed his meds again and he’s sleeping comfortably.”  When Lee didn’t respond, and just kept looking toward Chip, Will tried a slightly different tact.  “Why ‘no’, Skipper?”  That drew Lee’s eyes back to Will’s face, but he didn’t say anything.  “Just before you woke up you mumbled ‘no.’  Do you remember why?”


Lee’s only answer was to roll over so that he was facing the bulkhead, his back to Will.  The doctor easily recognized it as Lee’s second defense against talking about painful subjects – the first being to simply clam up and walk away.  This one could be occasionally broken down, if the person trying to do it was someone Lee totally trusted – and that wasn’t a very long list – and that person was extremely careful.  Will did nothing more than keep a hand lightly on Lee’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze every so often, and waited patiently.


It took awhile.  Lee’s eyes closed, and Will figured that Lee was hoping he would just go away.  Frank wandered in but Will quietly shooed him away, not wanting anything to break the tiny foothold he’d managed to make in Lee’s self-imposed silence.  Will knew only too well that something as simple as a sneeze outside the door could cause Lee to shut himself totally off again.  As long as he stayed quiet, Will still had a chance.


Lee finally opened his eyes again but continued to lie still, staring at the bulkhead.  When he did finally say something, it was almost so low that Will couldn’t hear it.  Silently he moved forward in the chair, getting a bit closer without actually seeming to.  “It was supposed to be such a simple errand.”  Will kept quiet.  The story would come out, however much of it Lee felt comfortable giving him, at Lee’s own speed.  Will had known a few times when Lee could be joked with and prodded for information, but now was definitely not one of them.  “I just needed to get in, get the intel ONI needed to close down a security leak, and get back out.  Their informant had the information, but couldn’t get it out without blowing his cover.”


Lee went silent again, continuing to stare straight ahead.  Will, remaining quiet with his hand still laid lightly on Lee’s shoulder, suspected that Lee was no longer seeing the bulkhead.


“I’d met the guy a few years ago, and he knew it was me coming, so it wasn’t too hard to make the drop.  Just had to hang around a few days until he figured it was safe; that I’d been taken for a common tourist and was no longer being watched as closely as I was at first.”


Again Lee was quiet for awhile and again Will waited patiently, although a bit frantic inside that nothing disturb Lee’s obviously painful soliloquy.  He’d have felt better if he’d known that Frank had been perceptive enough in the brief moment before Will dismissed him to realize that ‘something’ was going on, and was standing just outside Sick Bay’s door forbidding entrance, and warning passersby to be totally quiet until further notice.


“Next door to the hotel where I was staying was a little café.  The woman who ran the place lived in back with her two daughters, one about 14 who helped her mother, and a younger one that I would glimpse sometimes during the day playing in the little back yard.  She had red hair, and sort of reminded me of Chip’s youngest sister when I met her the first time Chip took me to his place…”  Lee’s voice trailed off.  Will didn’t like Lee’s use of the past tense as he spoke of the child and almost unconsciously gave Lee’s shoulder a slight squeeze.  It caused Lee to shudder, and Will practically held his breath until Lee once again started to speak.


“Tico made the drop, but I waited another couple of days before leaving just to be extra careful not to do anything that could compromise him.  I knew that once he made the drop he was going to make himself very noticeably present in a village several kilometers away, where he was from.  His sister was about to be married – it was one of the reasons this time was chosen for the exchange, because Tico would seem to be totally uninvolved if something should go wrong.”


Will noticed that Lee’s hands balled into fists, but made no comment.  Lee eventually sighed heavily and seemed to relax, if only slightly.


“The little girl, her name was Elisa,” Lee finally continued.  And again, Will cringed inwardly at the past tense.  “I had made arrangements to leave the following day, knowing that Tico was now safely in his own village.  That night, as I ate dinner at the café, about half a dozen soldiers came in.  They didn’t really pay me that much attention – I’d seen them almost every day as I walked around, visiting the local museums and churches, or just taking long walks.  But it was the first time that I’d seen them come to the café.  The woman seemed surprised as well, but she only sent the older daughter back into the kitchen, and waited on the tables herself.  I never saw Elisa in the front part – in the café itself.  I finished my meal and started to go back to the hotel.  One of the soldiers stood up and requested that I show him my papers – my I.D.  The woman looked worried, but I knew that everything was in order and offered them openly, if somewhat surprised.  That seemed to satisfy the man, and I thought that that was the end of it.”


Lee’s eyes closed and he shuddered again.  This time he left them closed as he continued talking.  “The next day I checked out of the hotel and walked down to the train station – the way that I had arrived.  It was a bit of a walk – the town sat on a hill.  As I started down I saw Elisa playing in a field just off the road.”  He grinned suddenly but didn’t open his eyes.  “She was chasing butterflies,” Lee said fondly, and Will gave his shoulder another squeeze.  “One lit on her hand.  She saw me watching her, and started to walk very carefully toward me.  I guess to show me her ‘prize.’  She was, maybe thirty yards away when a jeep came charging down the road.  It was the soldier who had challenged me the night before and one other, who was driving.  I tried to remain calm, and took a couple steps off to the side, toward Elisa.   I thought maybe the soldiers were merely on the way to meet the train, although I knew that it wouldn’t arrive for another hour or so.”  Lee paused.  “She was so innocent,” he said, so softly that Will almost didn’t hear it.


Lee was quiet for so long, his eyes still closed, that Will was afraid he had finally decided to shut down.  Not, Will knew from past experiences, to keep from revealing anything else that had happened, but merely to protect his friends from hearing something that he knew would upset them.  Lee was way too adept at protecting those around him by placing any and all burdens, physical or mental, on himself.  But Will continued to sit silently, still giving Lee’s shoulder an occasional squeeze.  Just letting Lee know that he was still willing to listen to anything that Lee might want to say.  It seemed to take forever.


Finally Lee again sighed heavily.  “The soldiers stopped next to me.  Elisa stopped walking toward me when she saw them, looking at me uncertainly.  She didn’t even seem to notice when the butterfly flew away.”


Leave it to the Skipper to notice all the details, Will thought to himself, and almost let himself frown.


“They demanded to again see my papers, and indicated that they wanted to search my bag as well.  I tried to remain calm, and asked why they wanted my I.D. when they’d just seen it the night before.  I was surprised that there was no one else in sight – just the four of us.  The soldier was adamant that he wanted to search my bag.  The intel was hidden well, but I was nervous – if it were found on me I would be promptly shot and my body simply disposed of.”  Again he paused and again Will frowned.  The things ONI stuck Lee in the middle of!  It was no wonder Chip got so frustrated.


Speaking of whom, Will sent a brief look across the room.  Even with the dimmed lights he could see that Chip was once again awake.  Will had no idea for how long.  Though Lee had been talking softly, Will felt sure that Chip could hear at least most of what Lee was saying.  Will was just grateful that Chip seemed to recognize what was going on and was remaining silent.


“The soldiers weren’t thrilled when I didn’t immediately cooperate,” Lee finally continued.  “I just kept questioning their actions as innocently as I could.  The one closest to me – the one that was doing all the talking – drew his weapon and signaled that I should drop the bag.  I shrugged and did, but at the same time grabbed for his gun.  It went off, harmlessly into the ground, thankfully.  But I knew that I was in big trouble.  I kicked him, wrestled the gun away from him and shot him, and the other one as well as he was reaching for his own weapon.  I didn’t have any choice.”  That last came out miserably.  Will was all too familiar with Lee’s distaste for killing – whether or not it was necessary.  And in this case it obviously had been.  “I’d totally forgotten about Elisa.”  Privately, Will didn’t believe that for a second.  “I looked up as she screamed and started running back through the meadow, towards town.  Here I was, someone she’d obviously seen around town, someone who ate in her mother’s café.”  He breathed deeply.  “Someone who she wanted to show her pretty butterfly to.  And I calmly and quietly, not ten yards in front of her, blew two soldiers to smithereens.”


The disgust in Lee’s voice spoke volumes to Will.  And, he was sure, to Chip as well.  Will finally broke his silence, extremely grateful that Lee was feeling rotten for merely having frightened the child – a child that reminded him of his best friend’s baby sister – and not that something Lee had done had caused physical pain or, heaven forbid, what Will had been dreading, her death.  “There was nothing else you could have done,” Will now told Lee with as much sincerity as he could.”


“I know,” Lee still said miserably.


“What happened after that?” Will asked gently.


Lee’s voice was flat when he answered.  “Tossed the bodies in the back of the jeep, sent it careening down the hill into a small grove of trees, and hurried to the train station.  I still can’t believe that I wasn’t seen.”


Except by a small child who wanted nothing more than to share her butterfly, and who instead was witness to one of life’s more disgusting realities.  Will kept that thought to himself.


“I need to get back to the Conn,” Lee said suddenly, and turned over in preparation for sitting up.  But his voice was still flat.  Will’s hand moved from his shoulder to his upper chest and applied pressure.


“The Admiral has already assured me that he has matters well in hand, and might even know a short-cut or two.”


“Oh, no,” Lee breathed, a more normal tenor in his voice, and tried once more to sit up.


“No!” Will told him firmly.  “Despite what you’re thinking,” and he sent Lee a grin, “it will do him good to run his own boat for awhile; remind him of what a load he places on you all the time.”


“But you’re not familiar with his short-cuts,” Lee tried again.


Will sent his CO a glare.  “No, but I’m willing to take his short-cut over your double vision any day.”  Will knew that he’d guessed right when Lee just sighed heavily and turned back toward the bulkhead.


Will pulled the blanket up a bit further and snugged it around Lee’s shoulders.  Lee merely closed his eyes.  Will wasn’t foolish enough to think that Lee would go back to sleep, but as long as he wasn’t actively fighting Will to return to duty, Will was pleased.  He walked over to Chip, not sure how the blond was reacting to Lee’s tale.  But Chip was just shaking his head slowly.


“Only Lee,” he mouthed silently.  Will nodded, snugged the blond’s blankets a bit more firmly as well, and headed back to his office.  Those two words pretty much said it all.


* * * *


Five days later Admiral Nelson stood on the sail watching a little vignette play out before him on Seaview’s home dock.  He was refusing to take sole blame for making it into port a full day later than scheduled.  After all, it wasn’t his fault if his ‘short-cut’ took them past some really interesting and previously unknown geological formations that he had to stop and check out.  Lee had just smiled, not seemingly upset by the delay.


Nelson heard footsteps climbing the ladder behind him, which turned out to belong to his CMO.  “Come to watch the show?” he asked.


“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Will confirmed.  “And figured I’d be a whole lot safer up here.”


“Coward,” Nelson said fondly.


“Noticed that you beat me up here,” Will deadpanned, before they both laughed.


There had been a car waiting for them when they pulled in.  Notified earlier, Security had let Chip’s sister drive all the way down instead of having to stay up in the Visitor’s Lot.  Both older men had met her previously, and knew her to be a little spitfire.  Barely five feet tall, slender, with flaming red hair, she wasn’t adverse, no matter what company she was in, to tell her big brother exactly what she thought, why she thought it, and precisely what Chip could do about it if he so much as contemplated contradicting her.  All with a smile plastered firmly across her face.  Their ultra-competent, Academy-trained and battle-seasoned XO didn’t stand a chance!

Not that it kept him from trying.  He hadn’t been able to budge Lee about carrying his own bag from his cabin.  And since he’d only been released the previous day from Sick Bay – against Doc’s wishes, but he was tired of listening to Chip’s complaints – Lee won that round fairly easily.  Not to mention that Chip was still feeling a little sheepish for having bashed Lee over the head, and Lee was taking full advantage of it.  Chip had known that Bethy was coming to pick him up, at least for a week or so until he could sneak back hopefully under Doc’s radar.  He’d planned on stopping at the office and grabbing at least the re-supply forms he needed for Seaview’s next couple of cruises, and at best clean out his ‘In’ basket of stuff that he could also work on from his laptop computer.  But Lee had been one step ahead of him.  He’d e-mailed Bethy, listing what Chip would need from his condo, and warned her of Chip’s probable plans.  Not only was there not going to be a stop at the office, he didn’t even get a chance to grab the extra copies of the master forms he kept at home.  His glares at a totally unrepentant Lee were merely ignored, he was hustled rather unceremoniously into his sister’s car, and they were off – if Bethy had anything to say about it, for most of the next three weeks!


Once they were gone Lee turned, sent his Commanding Officer a salute that Nelson returned crisply, and headed for his own car.


Will turned to the Admiral.  “And how, may I ask, did you manage to get him to take the next five days off?”  Will had nearly gone into shock when that little detail had been revealed the previous day.


Nelson gave him a mischievous little smile.  “You may ask.  I choose not to say.”


Will frowned.  “And you’re sure that he won’t just show up at the office in the morning, or work at home the whole time?”


“Very,” Nelson assured him, and turned to head back down the ladder.  Actually, he didn’t care if Will discovered his little ‘magic’ trick.  Will would enjoy it immensely.  But Nelson would leave it up to Lee to explain, if he so chose, the e-mail he’d gotten two days ago.  It had outlined plans for a nice, relaxing, long weekend aboard a sailboat that had already been rented by a certain young lady from Portland Oregon, with hair the color of wet sand and a decided knack for putting a certain stressed-out Commander at ease.  A very smug Harriman Nelson stopped just before his head went out of sight down the ladder.  “Buy you a drink?” he asked.


Will took one more glance at Lee, just getting into his little red sports car.  “At the very least,” he told his boss, and together they headed for Nelson’s office.






*see Past Imperfect, by R. L. Keller

**see Jigsaw, by R. L. Keller